Sidebar: Generational Differences in Education

For my EDTECH 537 class we read three papers about generational difference in education, with one arguing that “digital natives,” or people who were raised with technology, fundamentally think differently than other learners (Prensky, 2001). A second paper looked at Prensky’s arguments and described in turn why each were poorly researched (McKenzie, 2007). While some of his arguments weren’t entirely logical (e.g., some video games are violent, therefore no video game could be useful for education), his arguments were far more convincing and research-backed than Prensky’s. Finally, we read an article that found that while difference between generations existed and should be understood, they were not significant enough to warrant a change to the instructional design (Reeves, 2008).

As McKenzie points out, Prensky’s unsupported arguments are often repeated and have spread quite far. However, many of these comments and arguments sound like the comments and arguments that are always leveled at the next generation:

Simply put, people always see the next generation as having a short attention span, poor conversational skills, and a lack of drive. This has always been the case, and probably always will be.

Should a colleague of mine suggest changing our content to match a generational difference, I would first listen to what they would say. For example, younger students tend to need less in the way of explanations for how to use digital tools, and some analogies (e.g., referencing the maps that used to be in phone books) no longer make sense to younger students.

If instead they were to suggest a fundamental shift in the tools or methods of instruction based solely on a perceived generational divide, I would have to disagree. Simply telling a colleague that is rarely enough to make a difference, and it shouldn’t be. After all, just saying things it what got these ideas started. Instead, I would point them towards data-backed literature like Reeves & Oh. Once they are convinced that the differences between generations are not as substantive as they thought, I would help them choose the tools they wanted to use based on the subject matter or learning theory rather than as an attempt to appeal to  “digital natives” or “digital immigrants”.

After all, kids these days aren’t as unfocused as we give them credit for.

  • McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital nativism, digital delusions, and digital deprivation. From Now On: The Educational Technology Journal, 17(2).
  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.
  • Reeves, T. C., & Oh, E. J. (2008). Do generational differences matter in instructional design? In Instructional Technology Forum (Vol. 17, p. 2014). University of Georgia.

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