Hijacked Words

Sometimes words get hijacked and get new meanings and understandings associated with them.  This has certainly become the case for many educational words and phrases. Standards for example.  In education standards has become a dirty word because it has been hijacked and become synonymous with meaningless tests, scripted curriculum, and the stripping of creativity.  But, if we take a step outside of the system and remember what standards really are…it isn’t such a bad little word after all.  The problem with hijacked words is that the true meaning is often forgotten, and with it a little bit of truth and importance once associated with it.  We are so eager to dismiss the hijacked word as “bad” that, lumped with it, we dismiss the original idea.

In this morning’s #edchat, the topic was: Is the idea of digital native a myth? Do most kids already have the skills & knowledge 2 master tech 4 learning?

The conversation quickly turned to one of labeling kids and the belief that Digital Native is a myth because many adults are more tech savvy than their students.  There was a lot of discussion about kids needing to learn the technology, that they aren’t naturally gifted at using it.

It was at this point that I realized that Digital Native has become a hijacked word.  The idea of Digital Natives started with an article written by Marc Prensky.  You can read the article in its entirety here. In the article, Marc is painting a picture about the differences in the students we teach.  They think differently, view the world differently, and learn differently.  He says:

“It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of
their interaction with it, today‟s students think and process information fundamentally
differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most
educators suspect or realize. “Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain
structures, “ says Dr. Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine. As we shall see in
the next installment, it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed –
and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up. But whether or not this is
literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed. I will
get to how they have changed in a minute.

What should we call these “new” students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for
Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen. But the most useful designation I have found for them is
Digital Natives. Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of
computers, video games and the Internet.

So what does that make the rest of us? Those of us who were not born into the digital
world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many
or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital

The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all
immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain,
to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant
accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather
than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program
itself will teach us to use it. Today‟s older folk were “socialized” differently from their
kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later
in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.”

Here is what Marc isn’t saying: Kids born today come out of the womb knowing how to use all technology and use it well.  Even though Marc doesn’t say this, judging by today’s #edchat this is what many educators believe the term means.

Being a Digital Native has more to do with worldview than anything else.  If you are born in a time where GPS technology is built into every device you are going to think about reading a map differently than someone who grew up without GPS.  If you are born in a time where the printing press is gaining speed and books are ubiquitous, you are going to think about where information comes from differently than someone who grew up with oral tradition only.  Every generation has its technology “natives” and “immigrants”.  When I am around 8 year olds who are talking about Skyping each other after school I am an immigrant.  Not because I don’t know how to use Skype, not because they are better at utilizing it than I am.  I am an immigrant because I didn’t grow up with that technology as part of my world.  When I was a kid the best I could hope for was a cordless phone I could take into my room.  As far as the 8-year-old Skype user is concerned, Skype has always existed as part of their world.  That changes their worldview. That changes the way they think about communicating.  Compared to the 58-year-old I am a native. I have never known a world without color TV, remote controls, video games, or the home computer.  That is different from the world they grew up in.  It affects the way we view the world, the way we collect information, the way that we approach a problem.

I believe what Prensky was getting at was a matter of worldview.  I do not think he intended to suggest that students naturally understood how to use all technology, or that they could naturally use it well.  The point is that the technology blends into the background for them.  My students really don’t “get” how COOL cell phone technology is.  I am still amazed that I can pull out my phone and call anyone in the world no matter where I am.  My students don’t remember the days of the brick with poor reception, impossibly expensive cell bills, and that the first cellular phones weren’t actually all that convenient.  For them this technology blends into the environment.  It is a given.  This doesn’t mean that they will pick up every cell phone and know exactly how to use it. It means that when they approach learning and thinking, they do so with the worldview that we are connected at any time and in any place.

Consider this example: I was born in 1982. Home computers were, at best, novelties.  The first computer I remember playing on was the Commodore 64.  We used it to play a Top Gun video game with “amazing graphics!”  I thought it was REALLY cool that we had to use a joy stick.  We had a computer lab at school with Apple iie’s in it.  We played Number Crunchers and Oregon Trail.  The computer was for entertainment purposes.  It wasn’t until I was in 6th grade that I typed a “published” piece of work on a computer.  Everything was hand written first…in our neatest handwriting.  To this day if I am writing something important, I hand-write it first. I have notebooks full of blog post drafts, grant proposals, reports, etc. all written out long hand.  It isn’t because I don’t know how to use a computer, it isn’t because I’m not tech savvy.  It isn’t even because I really like extra work.  It all comes down to the worldview I grew up with.  You write first, then you publish. (My accent is showing.)  My students think it is ridiculous to write something before typing it.  They often ask why I would do that.  Because I’m not a native.

One last example: I grew up with cameras that used film.  Film was expensive to buy and process.  We had to take time getting a picture just right before taking it because we didn’t want to waste film.  My students have NO concept of this at all.  They take thousands of pictures, post them digitally and never worry about wasting film or money on bad pictures.  Even though I use a digital camera, know how to use the digital camera, know that I can take as many pictures as I want with it- I am still careful about trying to get a picture just right on the first try.  I still think I need to have every picture I take printed.  Different world views. For one of us the digital camera is native…I am the immigrant with an accent.

I think the idea of Digital Natives is important and has roots that need to be remembered.  When we look at students and call them Digital Natives, it isn’t because they know instinctively how to use every piece of technology. We call them Digital Natives because it reminds us that they are approaching learning with a different worldview.  They are approaching learning with a belief that technology is ubiquitous.  When we remember this definition of Digital Natives we will understand that technology and proper use has to be learned.  We will also understand that giving a Digital Native a 10-year-old textbook isn’t going to work. Technology is part of their landscape and we are asking them to learn in a way that doesn’t mesh with that worldview.  That is what Digital Native is really about.




  1. Hey Kelly,
    I enjoyed the post. And I appreciate your knowledge and clarification of the terms “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrant” . I also agree that it has in many ways been misunderstood or even hijacked.
    The point I stopped using the terms was when I realized the labels seemed to be a way of dividing teacher and student (especially teachers, who like me are at least as much “immigrant” as they are “native”). It seemed to work against the idea that teachers were “colearners” with students, which was a notion I’ve always really liked. And I think it caused some to wrongly think that students could be put in front of the technology and they’ll figure it out how best to use it. So while I agree with your points I’m not sure how these terms are reclaimed.
    Finally if it is about a digital worldview I wonder about students who do not yet have ubiquitous technology. How does that shape worldview? Students who have seen the technology but haven’t had the meaningful experiences. Many questions. 🙂
    Again I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    1. @Emory Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree, the labels have been used to divide students and teachers…asserting that we can’t understand each other because we are speaking different languages. I am disappointed that the words have been used this way. I’m not sure if the words themselves are worth salvaging but the ideas behind them certainly are. I think that when teachers remember that the student context and worldview is different, that our teaching and learning process (together) will be more authentic. Even without ubiquitous technology access the worldview is still shaped by it. Even if students don’t have access to a mp3 player themselves, they still understand the idea of an mp3 player and will relate to it more readily than a 8 track. They are still speaking the language that is native for them. I think this is similar to actual language acquisition. Inner city kids may not have the same command of language that a upper class private-school going student has, but they can both be natives with similar accents…I’m wondering if those students will lean more toward the “immigrant” look than the “native” though.
      Thanks for making me think!

  2. This is an interesting argument, but it has a fundamental flaw: calling the “digital native” orientation an “accent” connotes that these students are speaking with the technology with the control and assurance of a fluent language speaker. The environment in which these students are immersed is one of a consumer-driven culture, and the vast majority of the messages they get are designed to groom them as loyal consumers of one digital brand or another. As Michel Ghulin remarked recently, “For the most part, black and brown kids have computers tell them what to do. Only white kids get to tell the computer what to do.” The most important part of this debate is getting us as teachers to advocate for giving students the creative skills to use the tools for their purposes, to express their own voices.

    1. @Fred, I understand where you are coming from asserting that calling students “natives” and connecting it with the “accent” could lead people to believe that they are fluent language speakers (in fact I think this is the reason the wording got hijacked to mean something different). But, just because someone speaks with an accent does not mean that they have a command of the language. It simply means that their environment has affected the way that they interact with and view the world. It is still up to us to help students to become “fluent” speakers of the language who can use technology appropriately and in meaningful ways. I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence, we absolutely need to advocate for helping students use technology as a means of creation. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Most importantly, we need to teach ‘digital natives’ when to use pieces of technology, how to use it effectively, and how to evaluate pieces of technology. Much like Info Lit, Digital Literacy is a skill all students need to have. 🙂

    1. Leah, I couldn’t agree more. They may be native to the technology but that does not mean that they are literate in it, it is up to us to show them how to effectively and properly use the technology that is native for them.

  4. The point about pervasive world views is an important one. We need to remember that a child entering elementary/primary school will never have known a world without Google or YouTube – that for them, as they learn to master the web even from the first few grades, the tips and tricks of navigating around the digital space will be as fundamental to them as learning how to spell or to hold a pen or pencil the correct way.

    How many teachers still insist on students learning to use a paper based dictionary in primary levels? How many children will notice that as they type in their queries into Google (for example “mispelt”), the responses of their probably mis-spelt words will have at the top:

    Did you mean: misspelt

    People become digital natives because their connection of the world as they’re growing up enforces a certain way of doing things – they learn to interact with digital media and computing interfaces a certain way, and they learn to interact within those frameworks.

    That’s why a Grade 3 child can usually navigate a phone’s confusing user-interface far more readily than their parent. Not because they’ve learnt to use the phone but because of all the cumulative interactions they’ve had with digital devices as they’ve been growing up allows them to problem solve in a different way, more akin to how the designers of computing devices think rather than the designers of physical media. Going back to the dictionary example, I’d rather teach a child how to type into Google: “wiki digital native” as a starting point for learning than to point them towards a book which was probably printed 5 years ago and out of date. And once a child learns that little trick, why would they ever go back?

    Or consider the recent post from the Cooney Center:

    The study there examines the desire of children to participate in media. The article goes into the interesting behavior of children 6-9 who want participation in media and also “assumes” by peer pressure that they “have” it. The digital native by extension becomes a digital tribe. It’s extremely difficult for a child to become divorced from digital media today from a very young age. The surrounding context of their peers and market forces brought to bear on them from advertisers/toy makers/publishers and the shows they watch all build a world where digital literacy is as natural as breathing. They don’t think it. It’s just their world and the fundamental ease of interactions in their vocabulary (think IM, txt and other content creation) is embedded in many, many things around them.

    I talked about this offline line to Kelly, but I’ll mention it here to spur further thinking. Although I’m 43, I’m a digital native. I grew up hacking on Apple ][s and Commodore 64s as a teenager. My best friend from school works at Pixar and has been there for 14 years, inventing it from the ground up with others. It’s not just children who are digital natives – there are a range of adults who grew up learning to interact with CPUs and machine thinking as naturally as play. The difference between now and today is that education as a whole is starting to discourage the arts and creative thinking.

    Back then, we were teenage hackers because we learnt to creatively work around the limitations of the machines. Today, we need to teach our children similar creative thinking skills – without that – we’ll lose a generation who only accept that this is how digital media and devices are without ever questioning and innovating new solutions for the limitations of technology. We might lose a generation who would be building the Pixars or Apples or Googles of their own adulthood, weaving artistry and science in a new creative mix.

    And that would be a terrible thing.

    – Ian

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