Monday, October 26, 2015

Attitudes to Computing: Dispelling the debilitating myth of the digital native

In every group of primary teachers I work with I hear that, “Pupils know more about computers than us.” Often this idea stems from the theory of the "Digital Native" that people who were bought up with technology are implicitly better at understanding & using it than those who didn't.

When teachers say this It is often accompanied by the statement that I am just learning alongside the children. At first glance this sounds very noble. It recognizes that we are all learning and that information exchange can go both ways. However there are intrinsic problems with the belief and the typical response to it.

The problem with this is that it is at best a half-truth. Pupil access to technology can be very varied in homes from almost identical social backgrounds. Without formative assessment of key skills you won't know what digital literacy skills they are capable of or what they have been exposed to at home.

There is a good research paper on the myth of the digital native here

The wider truth is that there are large swathes of computing that they won't know anything about. Very few have any idea how networks, the Internet and the Web function or how computing devices are programmed. They don’t understand the fundamental computational thinking skills of Algorithm and algorithm evaluation, decomposition, abstraction and generalization. They don’t appreciate sequence, repetition, selection or variable use or the resilience and logical thinking that come from computational doing. Even if they are keen users of web resources few will have inculcated the essential knowledge to develop into safe digital citizens or to question the veracity of information.

The problem for teachers is that if you don’t believe that you have anything valuable to teach because pupils know it all already this affects what you teach and the time you spend resourcing and planning it.

Teachers and school leaders who believe the myth of the digital native often find excuses to leave computing out of their timetables. When they do teach computing they tend to rely very heavily on unplanned exploration and they justify this by recourse to the shared journey narrative.

I wonder if they would be happy to learn Maths or Literacy alongside their pupils in this same woolly way?

Please don’t think I am attacking exploration, it’s a fundamental part of a good computing lesson but it needs to be balanced alongside instruction in some form(1). Instruction assumes that there is knowledge and skills worth teaching to pupils.

By way of balance too much instruction without any exploration leads to shallow learning, concepts grasped at but not internalised fully.

We can sum up this fundamental balance like this.

In conclusion as leaders in computing in our schools it is important to challenge the debilitating myth of the digital native and promote curricular that includes instruction and exploration.

For a humorous secondary school look at the myth of the digital native @codeboom article is well worth a read.

(1) The form of instruction should always be down to the needs of the students and the professional judgement of the teacher. Instruction can be as diverse as creating knowledge videos favoured by the flipped classroom model to whole class teaching.


  1. Very important points raised in this article Phil. Thanks for publishing this. Emma

  2. I totally agree with your point, and I would like to add to it.

    Digital Literacy is only a small part of Computing, unless you take the view (as I do) that functional digital literacy is just like functional literacy and functional numeracy. In other words, the level of digital literacy a person requires depends upon what is expected of them. A programmer is not functionally digitally literate unless (s)he is competent in the software tools for programming, and an accountant is not functionally digitally literate unless (s)he is competent in the software tools for accountancy (and no, that does _not_ mean Excel). So, once students get beyond certain pretty basic stuff, digital literacy skills are specialist in nature, and are best learned on the job, or via an apprenticeship.

    The basics to which I refer are _not_ the use of office software, but the ability to open, close and learn to use programs on a range of different platforms, the ability to store and retrieve data in files, and to navigate file systems, the ability to use a simple text editor (rather than a word processor), the ability to find information, and to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable sources, the ability to choose and manage passwords, and to send and retrieve messages via email and other electronic means, and so on.

    However, computing is about _much_ more than this, including computational thinking and algorithmic problem-solving, but also (largely under the heading of IT) understanding "what happens when I" ... For instance, what happens when I 'send' an email, when I 'delete' a file, when I 'visit' a web site, or when I 'open' a document. The point here is that the world of computing is a world of metaphor, and understanding what is behind the metaphor gives us greater power and more control. And it also makes students better at 'staying safe', because without an undestanding of the technology it is hard to appreciate the risks associated with using it.

    All of these are things that every adult should be able to deal with. None of them is specialist in nature, any more than we would consider it specialist to know both how to make a piece of toast including why bread goes brown when I put it under a hot grill, and why it catches fire if I leave it there for too long.

    So how is it that we are happy to let teachers get away with not knowing things that _every_ adult should know? Worse, even, things that all of their pupils are supposed to know by the end of KS3! I wouldn't dream of trying to teach KS3 History, or French, or Mathematics without putting in a good deal of time and effort, but I would be ashamed of myself if I couldn't cope with them, because if all 14 year-olds are supposed to be able to deal with this material then all of their teachers should be able to as well! Surely the same should be true for Computing?


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