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Natives and immigrants revisited

For the past few of years, I’ve been bumping into Mark Prensky at conferences.  Around two years ago, after hearing him present at NECC and at the Scottish Learning Festival, I felt compelled to explore his message in a blog post.  I also had a friendly argument with him at the BLC conference this summer.

Prensky provokes. He argues for a learning environment based on gaming.  His motto: Engage me or enrage me.  I’ve sat in audiences and watched the faces of excellent educators developing serious guilt for not being serious gamers.  I left feeling both guilty and a little enraged myself.

Though I play with the concept in my own presentations and writings, I find Prensky’s native/immigrant metaphor divisive. And I know lots of young people who prefer running to gaming.  I know lots of older folks whose digital accents are barely noticeable.  Many of those older folks are pioneering new global pedagogies using the information and communication tools made available by Web 2.0.

Sometimes I worry about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Sure gaming engages. Sure we should make learning as much fun and relevant and authentic as possible.  Sometimes, as a colleague reminded me last week when I jumped through all sorts of hoops in an attempt to make the learning a little more fun, the learner also has to bring something to the table.

I wrote in that blog post a couple of years back:

While gaming might be a very effective learning tool, not everything is taught well through games. And, as hard as we try to design engaging instruction, sometimes learning takes a different kind of effort, an effort that isn’t invested by even the most serious of gamers.

Reaching that next level in reading, and writing, and researching, and communicating (in any medium we choose) may take a different kind of tenacity. Learning process skills is often frustrating and challenging. It takes patience. It takes human interaction.

Though multi-player games are wonderful collaborative, problem solving experiences, I believe that learning is significantly enhanced by face-to-face human interaction. I studied literature in college because I was inspired by the truths my high school English teachers helped me discover. I was inspired by the dialog. Through their prodding I chose to read ever more challenging and thoughtful texts.

Though students may prefer to learn by gaming, is it realistic that this strategy will allow them master all the skills they need?

As much as I adopt new strategies (and I adopt them with passion), I know in my heart that some stuff I carried over in my immigrant trunk is worth unpacking. Some traditional teaching strategies actually work. I know many good teachers who’d never attempt a game. They remain good teachers. Much of the time, they make learning fun. 

I’ve also wondered about Prensky’s (and other educational futurists’) contention that kids’ brains have significantly altered over time because of their exposure to digital technology.

So, why am I wondering about all this right now?

Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions and Digital Deprivation, in Jamie McKenzie’s most recent issue of From Now On, also questions Prensky’s assertions. 

McKenzie counters Prensky head on, directly questioning the research, arguing the native/immigrant metaphor, reminding us of the nasty nativism of years past.

In a rather shallow piece lacking in evidence or data, Prensky offers the terms "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" to set up a generational divide. . .He paints digital experience as wonderful and old ways as worthless. He lumps people together by nothing more than age and exposure, spending little time on differentiating or understanding. He offers learning with video games as a digital Nirvana that should replace forms of learning that he claims are now outmoded.

McKenzie provokes. Read his argument. 

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Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is the teacher-librarian at Springfield Township High School, a technology writer, and a blogger. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Tracy P. says:

    Hi Joyce,
    Great post! I’ve read with great interest a lot of Prensky’s stuff. He’s not completely off the mark. I also agree with what you’re saying… there are many things that can’t be taught through gaming or can be taught better through other formats. I do see how students at my school (and even my own elementary-aged sons) gravitate toward technology and how some games, and even more Web 2.0 tools, can be used as tools to motivate and engage them as learners. There are many teachers “missing the boat” by not capitalizing on this more.

    As for the “generational gap” of natives vs. immigrants… I told my husband the other night that I’ve decided I’m better described as “late immersion”… :-)

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