Arguing with the Digital Natives guy in four vexations

This is difficult for me to write because I’m still tense about much of it. I have recently got one of those ‘health tracker’ watches and while reviewing the video of the session with Marc Prensky at Online Educa my heart rate did spiral upwards.

The debate was a chaired, hour long session, between myself and Marc which promised to ‘go beyond’ metaphors to discuss the ‘realities’ of how education systems should respond to digital. In the end we didn’t discuss Visitors & Residents or Natives & Immigrants directly (something Marc was careful to avoid). However, our underlying educational ideologies were laid bare during the debate and effectively revealed the thinking behind our respective metaphors.

A simple way to read the session is in cultural terms, as a colleague pointed out to me I had a European-style ‘critical thinking’ perspective while Marc has a ‘pioneering’ North American flavoured focus on ‘accomplishment’. If I was to put it bluntly, I characterised Marc as Libertarian while he characterised me as Elitist and an Ivory Tower academic.

Having reviewed the video of the session I can see that Marc’s point of view was generally geared around schools level education rather than higher education. In fact, his framing of higher education approximated Oxbridge of 30 years ago (or now depending which course you are on).

This is vexation number one: repeatedly being told by people that don’t teach that the education system is broken. Marc clearly has very little experience, or knowledge, of the majority of the higher education sector in the UK (in fact many of the speakers at Educa had little or no day-to-day experience of working in education institutions). Marc evidenced his lack of direct experience in a few comments:

  1. He described a form of group-based teaching as good idea, as if we don’t ALREADY DO THIS A LOT.
  2. He suggested we should do more project-based learning which is something WE ALREADY DO A LOT.
  3. He seemed to be under the impression that all we do is ‘think’, and teach students how to ‘think like us’, which he characterised as of little value, suggesting that it would be better if we thought less and did more.

Vexation number two: implying that ‘thinking’ is elitist. Working on the basis that you are either thinking *or* doing is ridiculous, but I suspect Marc was alluding to ‘academic’ thinking AKA ‘not doing anything useful’ rather than the thinking required to DO THINGS(?). I believe that having learned some literacies at school it’s part of higher education’s responsibility facilitate students in extending their ability to think critically and question intelligently. That’s not to say that, as Marc suggested, I assume that incoming students don’t know how to think. However, don’t believe that we are all ‘naturally’ good at this (Excepting those who are so privileged they are never put in a position where their actions are called out an unthinking?). Most of us benefit from some teaching and some challenging in this area.

So I take offence at the implication I’m elitist for holding the view that thinking is a good thing, especially as this is part of a process by which students can, I hope, reject or challenge dominant modes of thought and those who have taught them. I love a well reasoned argument from a student about why my views don’t stand up and I hope I’m open enough to take new ideas on board. (At one point Marc highlighted that I’d brought some notes with me to the session, as if this was somehow an elitist, academic move, rather than ‘being somewhat prepared’.)

Vexation number three: the repeated use of terms like ‘effective’ and ‘successful’ with no frame of reference. As you would expect, the Digital Natives guy basically espoused a kind of ‘let the kids get on with it because they have the Web’ approach whereas I suggested that we need to teach critical thinking and facilitate a broadening worldview. Towards the end of the debate I gave a little speech about privilege, quoting Orwell: “All animals are born equal, but some are born more equal than others”. If our education systems can’t provide opportunities to those born ‘less equal’ then what’s the point? Obviously my problem with Marc’s position is it assumes a Libertarian equity of opportunity and runs on the basis that you just need to be your best, most individual, self and you will‘ succeed. It’s easy to see how Marc, having been through Harvard Business School, might promote this idea and how this would be lurking behind the Digital Natives stuff. It’s the old ‘being successful means being like me’ problem.

Vexation number four: celebrating human doing over human being. For Marc, ‘success’ seemed to be about doing things to the world to ‘make it’ a better place, whereas I suggested notions of becoming and, I hope, being part of humanity. This is why I’m ok with the notion of, what is often described as, ‘learning for learning’s sake’ because I think it enriches us – it’s probably better described as ‘learning for our own sake’, and if we are active within our communities and beyond then ‘own sake’ means society as much as ourselves.

How about we focus on becoming decent, thoughtful, human beings before confidently ‘fixing’ the world? Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’m confident that concentrating on the former is more likely to improve the general state of affairs. Ultimately, Marc sees the Web, or the network, as a largely non-hierarchical location in which anyone with some gumption can achieve great things, as if the Web was some kind of neutral space in which the ‘good’ succeed and those that sink only have themselves to blame. This is effectively the mantra Silicon Valley hides behind.

I hope that for those in the room our sharply opposing views led to a meaningful debate. I personally found it quite distressing but maybe I’m just not native enough to market-driven conference environments? 🙂

Having said this, now I’ve had time to reflect I have to admit it’s been a useful process for me. I’ve learnt a lot and I value the opportunity to debate with people who hold differing views. After all, where is the challenge in only speaking to people who already agree with us? So, thanks for your time Marc, I can’t see us agreeing on much but I’d be up for round two if you are.


5 thoughts on “Arguing with the Digital Natives guy in four vexations

  1. Dave,

    I enjoyed the debate and my conclusion (for what it is worth) is that you and Marc are not to far as far apart in your thinking as you suggest in your post , perhaps a discussion about the “metaphors” may have exposed a chasm, a real shame that time did not permit this to occur. I would consider both of you as personal friends in the world of learning and agree and disagree with both of you . On reflection and this perhaps is more a critisicm of the concept than the actual debate on Project Based Learning (PBL) that seemed to form the basis for much of Marc’s argument is that without critical thinking and “learning” PBL is problematic in the sense that the group (and I am assuming Marc’s concept of PBL is collaborative group learning ), runs the very serious risk of “doing” lots but “doing it badly” . I agree that failure is a fantastic learning opportunity but only if the learner(s) benefits from reflection and adapt the PBL Project accordingly. I also share concerns about what and who determines what “effective” is but I guess I too am sat in the ivory tower. I also like Marc’s broad definition of the “purpose” of education as equipping students to “make the world a better place” (I don’t think we would find too much opposition on that count). I did enjoy the discussion though thanks !

    1. The key term for me here is ‘reflection’; my concern is that we rush to ‘make the world a better place’ without reflecting on who we might be doing that for and why. Action without reflection (or thinking) is of little value. As I highlight in the post I’m more interested on how education can encourage us to reflect on our own motivations. I agree this should be integral to project/collaborative based approaches. I worry that the ongoing mistrust of expertise and ‘thinking’ fueled by Marc and others just gives more power to people who are in a position to act without having to explain their motivations.

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