Of Digital Natives and God Particles

This is a 16-19 minute read.

In this post I use the concept of the ‘Digital Native’ to explore some of my opinions regarding the way we should consider the use of technology in ELT teaching. These are my opinions (at the moment) and although intended to be provocative –  they are stated to promote debate to help us enhance teaching and learning. If you have a different opinion or other ideas I would love to hear them.


So let’s go….

Higgs Bosons

In July 2012 CERN announced it had found the ‘God Particle’. Well actually they didn’t they announced they had found something that had the characteristics of the long-sought Higgs Boson. Many particle physicists don’t really like the moniker ‘God Particle’ as they feel it misrepresents the Higgs Boson. Peter Higgs , after whom the boson is named, dislikes it because he thinks it is misleading and also, as an atheist, he does not wish to offend people with religious views. The ‘God Particle’ has now become an unstoppable meme in popular culture – after the publisher of Leon Lederman’s 1993 book on the Higgs Boson refused to allow him to refer to it as the ‘Goddam Particle’. Lederman it believed to be more appropriate name for a particle that took 50 year to find after its existence was posited.




Digitial Natives

As an ELT teacher I sometimes feel that the term ‘Digital Native’ is our ‘God Particle’. Marc Prensky, largely referring to North American school children (not in an ELT context) coined  ‘Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants’ to describe modern learners and their teachers. Whilst I am sure he doesn’t regret his terminology, it seems to me that in ELT discourse these phrases have become shorthand for concepts that Prensky did not intend.

‘Digital Natives’ like the ‘God Particle’ has a nice ring to it and hints at an easy understanding of the people who are digitally native. The message often boils down to a simple and misleading message – modern learners like technology – they are ‘tech savvy’ so we, as teachers, should use technology in our teaching. This path leads to novelty in teaching and learning – whilst novelty is fun and can be interesting it is different from innovation. The other message is that as a generation they are fundamentally different, to the point of having different brain structures to previous generations.




Novelty, Innovation & Normalisation

I am not opposed to novelty, I use Socrative, an online student response system in my teaching.  I think I am using it in a principled way and have found one way to use it that is somewhat innovative. The learners’ enjoy using it and I think it brings value to the learning process. But in some ways it is a novelty in the way wheeling the video player and TV was in the 1990s. Innovation is something more fundamental and is only likely to come about in technological terms when normalisation occurs. Books and pens are normalised technologies. For Bax

“Normalisation is therefore the stage when a technology is invisible, hardly even recognised as a technology, taken for granted in everyday life.” (2003,p.23)

Normalisation means that we focus on the affordances (Conole & Dyke, 2004, p.116) of the technology – the additional benefits it brings rather than the technology itself. And if there is any message for teachers to come from ‘Digital Nativism’ it is the importance of principled innovation. Prensky comes to the same conclusion, as have many other educators, that it is time to reassess teaching methods promoted in the past that are now made possible through the affordances of technology. This does not require teachers to be ‘Tech Savvy’.




The evolution of Prensky’s Digital Native

Although he is not the only voice in the debate, as the father of the ‘Digital Native’ it is worth looking at what he said.

2001 – Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, pt.I & Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, pt.II, Do They Really Think differently?

In his first two articles addressing the issue of ‘Digital Natives’, Prensky speculates that young people’s brains have been changed as a result of growing up in Digital World. Indeed he starts his article with this startling and somewhat worrying pronouncement

“Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”(2001a,p.1)

Their brains are fundamentally different from learners from previous generations with the result of the complaints that teachers have about their ability to learn. He cites Neuroplasticity and Social Psychology to explain how this brain change has come about. The argument is superficially attractive but extremely speculative and the figures he uses to support his argument are somewhat, to use the technical term, iffy (1). Nonetheless he argues that as educators we need to change the way we promote and encourage learning. In these articles he promoted learning through well designed computer games.

I find this argument for brain transformation to be spurious on two counts. Firstly, I suspect the scientific foundations are not so solid – Neuroplasticity is not in doubt but Prensky’s arguments are built on speculative connections to the science. As Bennet notes

“He relies on anecdotes, conjecture and speculation” (2012, p.3)

Secondly, I suspect that there isn’t really a generational difference. Rather the truth is closer to the fact that one generation always finds fault with following generations – probably in exactly the same way that preceding generations found fault with them. Did teachers only start complaining about their learner’s abilities, in comparison to their own, in the late 1990s?

This also leads to the reactionary “If It was okay for me, it should be ok for them” view of education. Ken Robinson’ wry observation (9mins 34 secs) that the function of public education appears to be to produce university professors, would seem to be in this vein . Teachers are former learners who were able to succeed in their educational system – so what is there to change? “It was okay for us” ignores the fact that it was probably not okay for a lot of other learners – who are not now in the business of education.

Research reported by Bennet (2012) and Helsper & Enyon (2009) casts doubts on generational  differences . They indicate that gender, breadth and experience of use of technology, educational background were more likely predictors of nativism. Bennet also states that there are larger discrepancies within generations than across them.

Helsper & Enyon also suggest that ‘Digital Native’ is a term being used as an overgeneralization, concluding that their

“data indicates is that the opposite is true – that contemporary society is a continuation of the past and technology, while important, is not the only determining factor in our lives.” (2009, p.18)



Don’t forget your salt.

If you are writing a paper, giving a conference presentation, delivering staff training, talking to colleagues, listening to others…on the concept of ‘Digital Natives’ please take these articles with a BIG pinch of salt.

That’s not the end of the story Prensky’s 2010 book ‘Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning’ displays a marked shift in his emphasis.

2010 – Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning (2)

In this book Prensky does not speculate on a mechanism for Digital Nativism – rather he just seems to focus on learners as young people who exist in the latest version of the modern world and are not brain-mutated versions of previous generations. In fact, the really nice thing about his book (the first chapter is available here) is its relentlessly positive approach to young people as learners. According to Prensky in this modern world

“More and more young people are now deeply and permanently technologically enhanced, connected to their peers and the world in ways no generation has ever been before. Streams of information come at them 24/7. More and more of what they want and need is available in their pocket on demand. “If I lose my cell phone, I lose half my brain,” comments one student.” (2005)

Whilst many educators may view this student’s comment with horror, it is reality, and isn’t this a perfect example of Gardner’s distributed intelligence. When she says that she has lost half her brain this does not mean she was using less of her brain originally – rather it could be an acknowledgement of the power of connection to information acting as a cognitive aid to enhance her skills and knowledge (Thomas, 2000, p.26). It is interesting and relevant that in losing the phone the learner is not so much upset about the phone itself but the information it can access (although I’m sure her parents are not too happy about this). This is the point that we as teachers need to understand. Digital Nativism (if it exists) is not about having a detailed knowledge of technology being ‘tech savvy’, it is rather about a relationship to information – this is what I understand Prensky to means by ‘attitude’ in the following quote

“Obviously, no student knows everything there is to know about technology. Some know a lot, and some know surprisingly little. (That doesn’t, by the way, make them any less digital natives, a distinction which is more about attitude than knowledge.) Many teachers, of course, are extremely technology savvy.” (2005)

Young people, with access to the technology, expect to be able to communicate with their friends instantly, to find out the latest news, to find answers immediately… I think this point is key and often missed – therefore as teachers we focus on the technology itself not what the technology can do. Apps and web tools (notice we no longer really talk of CALL) of course have a place in the classroom but when we are considering a pedagogy (or androgogy) we should look deeper.




Web 2.0 (Natives!)

An interesting thing that happened during the period between Prensky’s first article and his 2010 book (although the first chapter available on his website is dated 2005) is the advent of Web 2.0 technology.

Dating from around 2003 Web 2.0 refers, very generally, to technologies where users can play an active part in the creation and use of web content. This co-creation of knowledge and content is constructivism in action and as Prensky indicates points to ideas espoused be (socio)-constructivist educators from the past.




You are going to go on about PBL aren’t you?

Well yes. If you remember Prensky (in 2001) argued

“Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach” (2001a, p.1)

As I have discussed, it is my contention that the education systems that we have (and had) were never designed to adequately educate all then of the learners in the system. Prensky suggests that turning to pedagogy from a pre-digital age is a potential solution to meeting our learners needs. This would seem to be a tacit admission that young people, as learners, have remained essentially the same over the passage of time.

“Ironically, it’s the generation based on the expectation of interactivity that is ripe for the skill-based and ‘doing-based’ teaching methods that past experts have always suggested are the best for learning, but that were largely rejected by the education establishment as being too hard to implement.” (Prensky 2010, p.xv)

Prensky uses the umbrella term Partnering  to describe a range of learning techniques that include Project and Problem Based Learning.

My own experience of Problem Based Learning benefitted from the technologies now available. A criticism of Problem Based Learning is its staff intensive nature (Hmelo-Silver 2004, p. 261) – however by basing projects around a wiki I, as a single teacher, was able to monitor the progress of several groups and take action as necessary.

Wikis are the epitome of Web 2.0 software design and philosophy and offer great opportunities to promote learning.  With their ease of use, interactivity, democratic conceptions of access and contribution, wikis posses great collaborative potential (Mclaughlin &  Lee 2007, p.669, Parker & Chao 2007, p.57) that can be harnessed for socially constructivist learning (Notari as cited in Parker & Chao, 2007, p.59).




A Question for You Dear Reader!

This has been a relatively long post – but it isn’t a New Yorker length article. Have you made it so far without: checking your email/messaging software, checking the news, sending a text message…?

My guess is probably not. But then I don’t think there is anything wrong with that – the fact that you are reading this blog means that this is the world you inhabit.

Okay – maybe you made it through without some other digital distraction but if you read it online (rather than printing it to read) I bet you clicked the odd link or checked a reference. This is the nature of reading online – each reader creates their own text through as they navigate the text, links and the links from those links (Coiro 2003).

You do not have to be a ‘Digital Native’ to read this way – it is normal and something we should be embracing as teachers. (We should be helping our learners to understand this form of reading rather than solely focussing on the printed text. We can also deal with study skills for the modern information age – to deal with the problems caused by an overload of information when multitasking.)

So, do you consider yourself a ‘Digital Native’? Perhaps were all just Digital Inhabitants (3).




In Summary

Just in case all the multi-tasking has distracted you from the post here is a summary of my thoughts:

  • The term ‘Digital Natives’ when used as shorthand to describe a generation of learners as fundamentally different from previous generations is misleading. So is the implication that they are ‘tech savvy’. This often leads to the conclusion that “technology is the answer”. This is novelty rather than innovation (and considered use of technology) in Teaching and Learning. It threatens to lead us down a pedagogical rabbit hole.
  • This shorthand version is different from Prensky’s later conception of the ‘Digital Native’. Someone who has an expectation of instant (and universal) access to information afforded by the current technology.
  • There isn’t really a generational difference between learners – just rose tinted glasses and the fact that those in the business of the education system are those that benefitted from it themselves. The “well it was ok for me” effect.
  • The original conception of the ‘Digital Native’ does not really stand up to the subsequent research.
  • The affordances of technology, specifically constructivist Web 2.0 technologies, make experiential, enquiry based learning a practical reality. These are sort of educational experiences advocated by constructivist educators such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget.
  • PBL embraces technology as a cognitive aid that is used in a naturalised context and not as a novelty.
  • As these forms of learning are a practical reality, for internet accessible learners, it is only us as teachers that are holding this back. We can, and do, put up many ifs and buts in the way – however these are just excuses for inaction.
  • Any user of Digital media displays signs of ‘Digital Nativism’ – as demonstrated by the way you read this text (especially if you just skipped to this summary!)



A Final Thought About Digital Immigrants

A final thought, the shorthand version of the “Digital Native / Digital Immigrants” message is a hindrance to educators who are, according to the message, ‘Digital Immigrants’. It can appear daunting, discourage professional development, innovation and experimentation in teaching if you are told you are a fundamentally different from the learners you are teaching.  So it is nice to end with Prensky’s suggestion of Partnering for Learning as a symbiotic relationship which lets

“students focus on the part of the learning process that they can do best, and letting teachers focus on the part of the learning process that they can do best.” (2005)
We have to build a pedagogy that embraces the affordances of technology to enhance learning for all our learners.





(1)   To support his claim of brain transformation Prensky makes the following statement

“Our children today are being socialized in a way that is vastly different from their parents. The numbers are overwhelming: over 10,000 hours playing videogames, over 200,000 emails and instant messages sent and received; over 10,000 hours talking on digital cell phones; over 20,000 hours watching TV (a high percentage fast speed MTV), over 500,000 commercials seen—all before the kids leave college. And, maybe, at the very most, 5,000 hours of book reading. These are today’s ―Digital Native‖ students” (2001b)

In his footnotes he explains his calculation of these figures. They are based on a young (North American) person doing / being exposed to the activity every day for 15 years. Prensky’s article was published in October 2001. A 15 year old in 2001 would have been born in 1986 – how many of these technologies were available then – leaving aside their proficiency as newborn instant messagers! So he cannot be talking about school age youngsters in this scenario. I could go on to talk about the research he cites but the point is that this argument is pretty speculative.

(2)    The first chapter of the book is available online and I fully recommend it, not necessarily as a guide to teaching ‘Digitial Natives’ but, as an example of a wonderful way to view our learners.

(3)   Neuroplasticity is an established fact in adults as well as young people. Remarkable results have been seen in adults with brain injuries – it is also true that our brain changes every time we learn something new. So, in this article claiming brain changes, when novice web-surfers are guided in web-searching, what really seems to be being reported is not brain-mutation but just changes that occur from learning or doing something new. These people undergoing ‘brain change’ are actually adults so really the ‘Digital Native’ in this case is someone who learns to use the technology.

The article is interesting in the discussion of reading. However, online reading is not going away so we should focus on helping our learners to work in the world of unlimited and instant access to information. Just as in the pre-digital age learners were introduced to media literacy so modern learners need to learn digital-media literacy (but that’s a topic for another post).





These references exclude those that are hyperlinked in the text.

Bennett, S 2012, “Digital natives”,  In Z Yan (Eds), Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior: Volume 1, pp. 212-219, viewed 1st June 2014, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/27739/1/Digital_natives_(LSERO).pdf

Helsper, E  & Eynon, R 2009, ‘Digital natives: where is the evidence?’ British Educational Research Journal, viewed 1st June 2014 http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/27739/1/Digital_natives_(LSERO).pdf

Conole, G & Dyke, M 2004, ‘What are the affordances of Information and communication technologies?’, ALT-J, Vol. 12, no.2, pp.111–123.

Hmelo-Silver, C E 2004, ‘Problem based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?’, Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 16 No. 3, pp.253-266.

Coiro, J 2003, ‘Reading Comprehension on the Internet: Expanding Our Understanding of Reading Comprehension to Encompass New Literacies, Reading Online, viewed 10th June 2014, http://www.readingonline.org/electronic/rt/2-03_column/

McLoughlin, C & Lee, M 2007, ‘Social software and participatory learning: Pedagogical choices with technology affordances in the Web 2.0 era.’, ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ascilite Singapore 2007, viewed 3 April 2011, via http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/singapore07/procs/mcloughlin.pdf

Parker, K R & Chao, J T 2007, ‘Wiki as a teaching tool’, Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, vol.3, pp.57–72.

Prenksy, M 2001a, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.’, On the Horizon, vol.9, no.5, viewed 1st June 2014, http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Prenksy, M 2001b, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II Do they really think differently?’, On the Horizon, vol.9, no.6. viewed 1st June 2014, http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf

Prensky, M 2005, Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning. Introduction:

Our changing world, Technology and Global Society, viewed 1st June 2014, http://marcprensky.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Prensky-TEACHING_DIGITAL_NATIVES-Chapter1.pdf

Prensky, M 2010, Teaching Digital Natives. Partnering for Real Learning, Corwin, California

Thomas, J W 2000, ‘A review of research on project-based learning.’, viewed, 18 July 2005 from http://www.autodesk.com/foundation




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Creative Commons License
Of Digital Natives and God Particles by Andrew Bosson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://beginswithaproblem.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/of-digital-natives-and-god-particles/.

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