SavageMarc Prensky’s work on digital natives represents a watershed in educational thinking, and seems to have been behind much of the 21st Century pedagogical approach. Whilst Prensky shares some interesting ideas, I believe the concept of digital natives has done education more harm than good. The premise that children born into a digital world are “digital natives”, seems to have lead many to the conclusion that they are experts in all things digital. Whilst this might seem to be the case at first glance, such as when an adult sees a child operating an iPad in a very confident manner, dig a little deeper and you will see that there is often very little substance, and almost always no true breadth, in terms of knowledge. The result is that many schools are no longer teaching ICT effectively, as they believe students already know “enough” about the digital world. The result is a growing number of users who have little understanding of how to behave online, how digital technologies work, or how they can stop relying on others and build solutions of their own.

Whilst I am all for models (they are after all powerful tools for communicating ideas and knowledge), the more I think about it, the more I don’t like the digital native model we seem to be stuck with. The question is, then, what might replace it in such a way that we can refocus some of the educational discourse around children and technology?

Although I have not been thinking about this issue consciously, it has obviously been fermenting in some inaccessible recess of my brain, for seemingly out of nowhere came the fully developed idea of students as a “digital savages“. Now, for some, the word savage is laden with colonial, imperial and racist baggage from generations past, but the image I am trying to invoke is not this at all, but rather the sense of an untamed animal.

  • Localisation –  a savage beast has an amazingly intimate knowledge of its local surrounds, but knows little of the wider world beyond. It can navigate with great efficiency in a small area, but change the environment and it is not able to function. It does not understand the limitations of its habitat, nor its relationship with the wider world. For example, many students are extremely proficient at using certain web sites, but struggle moving on to sites with a different type of interface or structure. They generally also have little understanding of how these sites are powered by the Internet, who runs them and why, and how reliable they are.
  • Specialisation like many wild beasts, children tend to specialise in certain types of knowledge and skills. For many, this takes the form of gaming and social networking. Whilst these are valuable skills, they do not automatically translate to ability in other areas, such as collaborative writing or programming. Often, teachers and leaders base their judgement of student ability on their strongest area, and never see that there are whole, vital skill sets which students lack.
  • Flocking – in the exact same way that birds of a feather flock together, many young Internet users run in herds of relatively homogenous users. Reddit provides a great example of this, with its largely young, male demographic, often spouting misogynistic memes that appeal within but not always without. The danger here is one of living in an echo chamber, where what is believed to be true becomes true, and the balancing opinions of outsiders don’t matter.
  • Viciousness – William Golding’s Lord of the Flies famously captured the wild, untamed savageness of young boys, given a chance to break out of conventional social structures. Internet culture, at times, seems to be the modern stage for this very tale, with users of all ages performing wicked deeds under the cloak of anonynimity. Any teacher with an interest in student behaviour will be able to attest to students behaving online in ways that would be unimaginable in the real world.

To some, this might seem like a bleak assessment of young Internet users, and perhaps this is exactly what we should expect in a young environment with no rules and few norms. Whilst I love my students, and believe them to be generally good, positive and willing to learn, it would not be beneficial for anyone if I were to ignore the truth of how they interact with digital technology. For if we are not judicious in our delivery of digital citizenship, ICT and information literacy education, we run the risk of raising a generation of true digital savages. Instead, we need to build the structures, tools and norms to help our students become complete digital humans.

Credits: Lord of the Flies image by darth_philburt on Flickr, shared under CC BY-NC-SA.