Glad You Asked About the Digital Generation

Posted by The Committed Sardine on

“Over the course of the past few months I've been asked a number of questions during my presentations. I've picked out 7 of the most consistently asked for your consideration. We are, of course, always open to any and all questions anytime, but these are the most frequently asked ones.”


1. What are the most profound effects that digital bombardment has on children? How is this changing the way educators need to teach in today’s classrooms?

The central issue is that kids today look pretty much the same as we did growing up, which belies the fact that on inside they are completely different. Because of digital bombardment and their pervasive exposure to digital technology—exposure that primarily happens outside of school hours—our kids’ brains are literally being “rewired” on an ongoing basis. Their brains are constantly adapting to accommodate all the technology they spend so much time surrounded by.

They are what Canadian futurist Don Tapscott calls “screenagers”—the first generation that has grown up with a computer mouse and the assumption that images on a screen are to be interacted with. These technologies are their new learning tools and also are something to project their very identity onto – what writer Marc Prensky calls “digital natives.”

They’ve developed a “cultural brain” profoundly affected by digital culture. Because of digital bombardment, the brains of today’s children are changing physically and chemically. They are actually neurologically wired differently than we are.

The problem is that many teachers haven’t had the same digital, online high-speed experiences that their students have, so naturally many teachers only feel comfortable processing information at the conventional speeds they have experienced most of their lives. As a result, they don’t understand or appreciate the digital generation’s need for speed.

So after digital learners have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of their lives before and after school, and on weekends and holidays playing video games, surfing the web, using cellphones and other digital devices wandering around in virtual environments, they come to school where many of them tell me they feel like they’ve literally run into a wall when they are confronted by the awesome technological power of an overhead projector or a dry erase whiteboard.

To really connect with the digital generation, educators need to start by acknowledging the absolute centrality of digital culture to their students’ lives. They must be willing, at least part of the time, to acknowledge, accept, embrace, and even show some respect for the digital world that is an everyday and internalized part of the modern pupil’s environment.

2. What are the new thinking skills that today’s workers need? How should educators change the way they teach to make sure they equip students with these skills?

Great question! Over the past few years, we have asked this question of more than 2000 people from all walks of life including politicians, business professionals, educators, and parents. Inevitably it seems to come down to six major things:

  1. Students need the ability to solve complex problems in real-time.
  2. Students need to be creative. They need to be able to think divergently and creatively in both digital and non-digital environments to create novel and useful solutions.
  3. Students need the ability to think analytically—Comparing, contrasting, evaluating, synthesizing, and applying without instruction or supervision. This concerns being able to use the higher end of Bloom’s Taxonomy, or the HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills).
  4. Students must be able to collaborate seamlessly in both physical and virtual spaces, with real and virtual partners in traditional and digital settings.
  5. Students must be able to communicate effectively, and not just using text or speech, but in multiple multimedia formats.
  6. Students must develop an appreciation of the social, the aesthetic, the esoteric, the philosophical, the moral, and the ethical.

We want to nurture students who are socially functional and prepared to operate in the new and changing world they’re going to live in. We want to help them develop the skills that will make them a good person, a good citizen, a good parent, a community member, and a positive contributor to our nation. We may quibble about the language a little, but every group of stakeholders we ask the question to from parents up to national level officials give us more or less the same answers.

We believe that traditional emphasis on literacy is not enough. We believe that even if we were to educate our students to standards of the traditional literacies and the provincial/state curriculum, as we are doing in our schools, that our students would be literate by the standards of the 20th century, but they wouldn’t be literate by the standards of the 21st Century.

The most powerful technology in the classroom was, is, and always will be a classroom teacher. But not just any classroom teacher.

If we’re going to prepare our students for the world that awaits them once they leave school, we need to move our thinking and our training beyond our primary fixation on the traditional 20th century literacies to a new and different set of 21st century fluencies. I’m referring to the 21st Century Fluencies, the process skills that are absolutely essential for success in the new working and living culture of the 21st century.

3. How can educators keep up with the new media and technological developments that their students are accessing, without becoming overwhelmed or neglecting other aspects of their work?

This, unfortunately, is the wrong question! I could put a state-of-the-art piece of technology in the hands of every single student, every single teacher, and every administrator, and if that’s all I do the only thing that’s going to change is that the technology bill—not to mention the power bill—is going to be a lot bigger. The most powerful technology in the classroom was, is, and always will be a classroom teacher. But not just any classroom teacher. It has to be a classroom teacher with a love of learning, and an appreciation of the aesthetic, the esoteric, the ethical, and the moral. It must be a teacher who understands Bloom and Gardner, and who understands how different students learn at different stages of their lives.

The fundamental issue we are facing in the 21st-century classroom has very little to do with hardware and everything to do with headware, meaning a focus on critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, information fluency, 21st Century collaboration, and what it means to be a global digital citizen in the new digital landscape. If teachers are willing to make a commitment to this, not only will test scores go up, but students will leave our schools with the essential skills needed to survive in the culture of the 21st Century.

4. Why do students today process information, interact, and communicate in fundamentally different ways than any previous generation before them? Each generation of students is, of course, presented with new ideas and new technologies—for example, the eras of the telephone, the television and the personal computer. What makes this particular generation unique?

Digital learners have had lifelong experience operating at twitch speed. For them, waiting for their computer to start up, waiting for files to download, waiting in a lineup to do something is a complete waste of time. This is primarily due to their constant lifelong exposure to video games, handheld devices, cell phones, hypertext, and all of the other aspects of our increasingly digital and high-paced world.

As a result of this chronic lifelong digital bombardment, digital kids have had far more experience at processing information at a far faster rate than we do. So naturally they’re far better at dealing with high speed information.

To coin a phrase from the movie Top Gun, the digital generation has an internalized “need for speed.” Digital is their native language; it’s the way they grew up.

Consequently, if we want connect with the digital generation, we need to start by acknowledging the absolute centrality of digital culture to their lives. We need to be willing, at least part of the time, to acknowledge, accept, to embrace and even show some respect for the digital world that is an everyday and internalized part of their students’ lives.

5. You make reference to the concept of “neuroplasticity.” What does this mean, and why is it important for educators to understand it in terms of today’s learners?

Neuroplasticity is the process of the ongoing reorganization and restructuring of the brain where the neurons are constantly rearranging themselves, making new connections, and pruning unnecessary ones. It means that the brain is literally plastic and malleable.

Contrary to traditional assumptions about how the brain and mind function, we now understand that the brain is constantly creating new thinking patterns throughout our lives. It’s important to understand that the brain is like a tree. Early on there’s a flurry of growth as a tree grows extra branches, extra twigs, and extra roots. Then, over time, the unused branches or pathways get pruned away or wither and die. It’s this pruning that gives a tree its shape for the future.

The very same thing happens in the brain.  There’s a lot of truth to the old phrase, “Use it or lose it.” The cells and connections that are redundant or that are seldom used get neurally pruned away. Over time, unused or under-utilized neural pathways wither and die.

Additionally, as new neural connections form during the early stages of life, the most heavily used pathways become coated or insulated with a  substance called myelin, which is a fatty insulating sheath that speeds signal transmission in the brain.

Being insulated in myelin will boost neural signal transmission speeds in the brain by more than 13 times. That’s quite a jump in speed, equivalent to switching from dial-up to broadband. Myelinated circuits not only transmit 13 times as fast, but they also transmit 30 times more information per second. So these myelinated neural circuits not only have  greater speed but also greater bandwidth.

So you might ask, what does this mean? It means that if you have a student who spends the majority of their time focusing on music or sports or academics, those are the cells and neural pathways that will become hard-wired and insulated.

Just because we were here first doesn’t mean we can ignore their world. If we choose to do so, then we do it at our own peril.

However, if you have students who spend the majority of their time lying on the couch playing video games or watching TV, those are the cells and connections that are going to flourish.

In the end, the most used and useful connections develop into a complex high-speed neural network as a result of this regular exposure, and if the connections are not used or useful they get pruned away. That’s what neuroplasticity is, and that’s why it’s important for teachers to understand it in terms of today’s learners.

6. You’ve come up with eight key learning preferences of digital learners and compared them with the “old-school” teaching styles. Why is it vital for today’s educators to adapt their teaching strategies to their students’ learning preferences rather than the other way around? Should we be at all concerned about this massive exposure to digital media?

Wow—a pretty big and complicated question to answer on the fly, but here goes. The digital generation is frequently criticized, derided, misunderstood, misrepresented, and disrespected in the press. They’re often accused of being intellectual slackers and anti-social beings who lack even basic social skills. However, many bodies of research point to the contrary. For the vast majority, the digital world is far from being an isolating experience, and they are constantly in contact with one another. They’re a highly social generation. The difference is that they’re just not social in the same ways that the older generations are social.

They live at least part of the time in digital worlds they’ve created for themselves. They play World of Warcraft and Mass Effect and hundreds of other MMORP games that are exciting and engaging. In these virtual environments they create and control everything—they’re very active, and there’s excitement, novelty, risk, and the company of peers. They observe, they inquire, they participate, discuss, argue, play, shop, critique, and investigate. As a result, they become easily frustrated because they expect and demand to be able to be in control.

The problem is that what they expect and experience in their world outside of school with their games and websites is completely at odds with what they experience in the classroom where everything is controlled by adults. They sit in classrooms where things are hierarchical, unidirectional, inflexible, and centralized, and where the teacher stands at the front of the room talking to them non-stop without even showing nice pictures.

It’s boring to them because they control nothing in such an environment; they have to just sit there passively and listen. For them, current schools are all about being passive observers and learners and experiencing only deferred gratification. I can absolutely guarantee you that it will not be possible much longer to engage young people in an educational system where the quality of experiences the school provides aren’t as inviting and engaging as the quality of the experiences they can get outside the school.

The digital generation will never accept the traditional stand-and-deliver educational model. They need to be in a situation where they’re controlling things, and that can never happen in the current school environment we provide for them.

7. If you could share one key piece of advice for educators navigating this new digital frontier, what would it be?

Every generation since the time of Socrates and Plato, including our parents, has looked at the next generation, including ours, and said, “What’s wrong with those kids?”

That’s the thing—there’s nothing wrong with these kids. They’re just neurologically different, and that’s why they see the world and engage with it differently than we do.

There is a fundamental change going on in our culture, and many adults refuse to recognize or accept this. We have every right to expect the digital generation to respect, understand, and engage with our world and our values; after all, that’s how we transmit culture and democracy from one generation to the next. But in the same way that we have every right for them to respect our world, we absolutely also need to take the time to respect, understand, and engage with their world and their values. Just because we were here first doesn’t mean we can ignore their world. If we choose to do so, then we do it at our own peril.


  1. Bill Wade

    Great sharing of thought and observation. Thank you. What strikes me is that on many of the very important matters, such as ethical and moral decision making, this generation (or at least my sample population) are asking very important questions, suggesting more creative solutions and still aspiring, much as we did, to ideals, hopes and aspirations that are admirable. The early philosophers were indeed worried about youth (see quote below) but I’m inclined to be more hopeful about the future when I take stock of what 20th century literacy has achieved to date.

    “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
    frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
    words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
    respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
    [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

  2. Ian Jukes

    Thanks for taking the time to respond and for the kind words Bill – I hear complaints all the time about the antisocial nature of this generation – the research and my experiences say that on the contrary this is a HIGHLY social generation – they’re just not social the way we think of social. You’re absolutely right – they are asking important questions, suggesting creative solutions and aspiring to ideals that they admire. Love the quote – every generation since the time of Socrates has looked at the next generation (including our parents) and asked, “what’s wrong with those kids?” There’s nothing wrong – they’re just different…

  3. Matthew J Price

    One of the early digital natives here, I think you got a lot right in your article. I would definitely disagree one two points however.

    First is with an implied assumption that our education system ought to be geared toward making children fit for work. I have two children (five and two) who I expect to come of age in a world dramatically different than my own. When I graduated in 2005, wikipedia was new, youtube had just been founded, and social networks were a joke. When my youngest turns 18, advanced virtual and augmented reality systems will have fully matured (Occulus Rift and Google Glass in 2013 given more than a million fold improvement). AI’s are predicted to be passing the Turing test for crying out loud :/ Even barring the idea that my son’s college girlfriend might not be a human being, the fact is that there will be few tasks left that haven’t been automated. Certainly none for an inexperienced young adult with no capital. It very well might be the case that he never has to work a day in his life for wages, simply because there aren’t any available. This isn’t to say education will stop being valuable, far from it, however if there is any labor for young people in 16 years, chances are we haven’t heard of it yet, and are unlikely to be preparing anyone for it.

    Second, is the idea that teachers are irreplaceable in the classroom. They certainly are necessary now for the best results, but children can and do teach themselves when given resources and sufficient reason to explore them. Add into this sufficiently advanced artificial agents, and I expect the vast majority of learning will be self directed.

    Thank you for reading my overly long comment. I think you hit the nail on the head overall: If young people face demands to learn in the same ways their parents and grandparents learned, they will come to resent and then ignore the people and institutions making those demands.

  4. Pingback: Glad You Asked About the Digital Generation | digitalcollaboration

  5. Ian Jukes

    Hey Matthew – thanks for taking the time to express your opinions. I completely agree with your first point – and in fact, I’m not able to find where I indicated otherwise in my post – my passionate belief is that our job as educators is to help prepare students for the life that they will lead once they leave school – as a citizen, a community member, a parent, and a contributing member of society (including in the workplace) 0 i highly recommend you read Rise of the Creative Class Revisited by Richard Florida – he asserts that despite automation there will always be a place for those who have critical thinking and problem solving skills – he compares the great economic dislocations when we went from beast of burden agriculture to mechanized agriculture – and again when we went from the agriculture economy to the industrial economy – in each case there was economic dislocation but then people adapted and moved to jobs that were not impacted by new technology.

    Same goes for point 2 – I also agree with you there – in fact, I frequently comment that any teacher that can be replaced by a computer deserves to be – but in the same breath I talk about the fact that we are a long way from replacing a teacher with a love of learning, appreciation of the aesthetic, the esoteric, the ethical and the moral, a teacher who understands deBono, Gardner, Piaget, Dewey et al – as far as I’m concerned, the killer app for the 21st Century is a great teacher with all of the above attributes. Lots more to say – so little time to say it. Thanks for writing…IJ

What do you think?