Why teaching digital natives means making technology more than the icing on the cake

25th July 2016 at 16:15

Tasked with producing a report for the governors of our school on the impact of flipped learning, I start by pondering how best to gather information, how to organise and present my text, and which technology or software I should use.

Compare that to our Year 7 pupils who, as a matter of course, have a wide repertoire of digital organisational and presentation tools from which to choose. Just watching them move seamlessly from one application to another and advance their learning through stages, it is evident that they don’t go through the same thought processes as I do. These digital natives instinctively know which the right tool is; they know its capabilities and how to get the most out of it to help them in their learning.

Guiding pupils’ instincts

However, this acrobatic display by the technologically agile hasn’t organically evolved from their experiences growing up. The pupils joining Year 7 demonstrate a vast range of abilities and technological readiness, very much dependent on the type of use at home (social or learning) and the level and quality of exposure at their primary school. While these digital natives expect to be taught in ways that incorporate the technology they have grown up with, the term implies they also come to school intrinsically knowing how to use technology effectively and appropriately. Yet although they may know how to access a tablet app, it doesn’t mean they are ready to use it to maximise their own learning.

What makes pupils able to capitalise on their experiences is the skill of the teacher in integrating technology to engage and enhance learning journeys that allow creativity and flow. Teaching pupils how to harness technology in the classroom (and beyond) develops their independence, collaborative skills and resilience as they learn from their mistakes and try again. Digital natives who have been guided towards using technology as and when it’s needed, and in the best way, are as likely to demonstrate great soft skills as they are to manipulate knowledge and use it to extend their learning.

Yet as the years pass, the term digital native becomes less and less relevant. The trainee teachers we are currently nurturing, who will graduate and become NQTs next year, are themselves digital natives. They have grown up in Facebook-connected families, have always owned an internet-enabled phone and have never experienced the pain of dial-up connection. We have to ask if their experiences will shape the kind of teacher they will be and how they will use technology creatively in their own classrooms.

It’s not who you are, but what you do

Writing for the TechCrunch website in a piece published last month, Mike Wadhera, founder of Sports Feed, says that the Information Age is over – it’s time to welcome the Experience Age. For Information Age (digital) natives, he says, social media tools such as Facebook are all about accumulating data about themselves in a digital profile which represents them as a person; by contrast, Experience Age natives use applications such as Snapchat and Periscope that require visual input, which then disappears. These emerging natives have broken the information-amassing habit; instead, Wadhera believes, they multi-layer technologies to help them construct experiences.

Essentially, we are already behind the curve. Digital natives have been around for more than 15 years now; the party has started without many of us planning appropriate party games.

If engagement with technology outside school affects learners’ development, planning for a learning diet that digital natives can take advantage of isn’t enough; we need to prepare for Experience Age natives and start considering what their needs will be and how we should adapt to deliver learning experiences they can fully engage with.

Cooking up a digital diet

Part of the solution to teaching students in the digital age is about getting the balance right between technology cake and technology icing. It’s about knowing the difference between using technology effectively for learning, and using technology for technology’s sake; knowing when to avoid the latest fad and how to pick through the endless lists of the latest digital solutions promising to deliver the world to find the one gem that will indeed make a difference.

For my school, it’s often been the least sexy technology tool that has had the most impact across the board and we actively seek out the mundanely clever solutions. We try not to put too much effort into keeping ahead of the game with the latest apps and devices and shoehorning them into the classroom repertoire. Technology when used really, really well should raise the bar for all, not just the few. 

So, back to the governors. How did I organise the gathering of my information and present it to them? In the end my considerations were shaped by time, content, skills and audience but defaulted to the norm and a little further from “digital native”. 

Perhaps I should practise what I preach more often and try other options out there. But then I am not a digital native; I am from Generation X and a digital immigrant, just trying to steer a path through the ever-evolving world of technology.

Kirsty Tonks is principal designate of a new High-Tech Primary Free school in the West Midlands and was assistant principal for e-learning at a Secondary school in the West Midlands