My husband Jason is a major video game geek. We have boxes in the garage, full of all his old game systems, and the games he couldn't trade back in for credit on newer ones. The guys at the local GameCrazy don't know his name; they just call him “big spender.”
I've known about this fascination since we started dating, and in fact, his ability to press the pause button and continue to interact with the people in the room was one of the things about him that impressed me to begin with. We'd curl up together, him with the latest Zelda, me with my laptop, and I'd cheer with him when he beat a level, and be dutifully sad when the solution to the puzzle eluded him. We discussed the ethics of cheats, and whether it was worth it or not. To this day, I get all nostalgic about our dating days when I hear the startup music to “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.”
When we had our first child, Jason and Rowan spent many the happy hour cuddling together, while Jason narrated game strategy, and Rowan soaked up the comfort and security of being in his Papa's arms. That's not a direct benefit of game playing by any stretch, but it does set the scene for What Happened Next.
Rowan pretty much demanded a controller of his own from the time he could make his hands obey his direction. And he knew the difference between when the controller was connected, and when it was not. No substitutions tolerated; he wanted to play.
Some amazing father-son bonding times have happened in front of The Box. Sometimes, it's a game that Rowan can play, sometimes, Rowan sits and watches Jason play and asks questions. Part collaboration, part adoration, it's precious time that the two of them share together. Usually, I go to bed pretty early, so the two pals hang out, and more nights than not, Rowan still falls asleep in Papa's arms while they play together.
Just for that alone, I'd say video games were worth it and then some.
But as Rowan's gotten older (he'll be five in a few months), a fascinating new dimension has been introduced, and that's what's interesting in terms of this blog, in terms of learning. Because lately, Rowan has been expressing his own gaming style, totally independent of how Jason plays. Lately, Rowan has begun to shine as a Native.
The term digital native was coined by Marc Prensky, who explains it like this:
They are native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet. I refer to those of us who were not born into the digital world as digital immigrants. We have adopted many aspects of the technology, but just like those who learn another language later in life, we retain an “accent” because we still have one foot in the past.
Recently, Rowan's been playing LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, on his own. Both Jason and his brother, Marc, played through both games and beat them before Rowan got to play, so there were going to be no surprises, and nothing overly frustrating, that Rowan couldn't be helped with. And neither one of them came up with the solutions to various problems in the game that Rowan has. He figured out that the Stormtroopers will never shoot at R2-D2, so you can use R2-D2 to shove “bad guys” over the edges of tree bridges in the Ewok world, and off the catwalks within the Death Star.
And when it gets to be time for Jason and Marc to play games that require a little deeper strategic thinking and manual dexterity, like Shadow of the Colossus, Rowan's perspective as a native has on more than one occasion enabled him to sit back and offer solutions that never occurred to my husband or his brother, who have many, many more years of game playing experience between them than Rowan even has years of life.
I've read through some of the literature on this phenomenon, and I'm convinced that it falls short, because it's being written by people who self-identify as professional educators. As an unschooler, I don't believe in educators, I believe in learners. My personal paradigm rests firmly on the assumption that children are self-starters, and that the information they absorb is the information most necessary to them in the environment they inhabit, so I'm exploring this digital native idea with that in mind.
Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century.
Today’s students – K through college – represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age. Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives.
I know this is utterly true in our household. I work in technology; our family owes its income to the Ivory Towers of Supreme Geekery. Both of my sons recognize Duke, the Java programming language mascot immediately. Technology is integral to their environment.
Recently, a well-meaning relative got quite upset when she learned that Rowan could not yet, at age four, write his name. “But he can type it,” we argued. Typing your name matters far more in today's world, between now and the day he gets a bank account. And it's entirely possible that by that time, writing one's name may be made completely irrelevant by digital signatures, smart cards, and other identity technology advances. Prensky gives away his bias when he calls out hours spent reading, playing games, or watching TV. It's pretty clear there's a value judgment attached to those numbers, or he wouldn't bother stating all three. To my mind, though, as the mother of a native, those numbers are cause to rejoice.
The human animal has always adapted to the prevalent forces in its environment, assimilating that which is common, and ignoring that which is rare. So assimilating skill in a digital medium isn't really any different than assimilating fire, the wheel, the written word, or the assembly line (and as an aside, the school system as we know it was designed to prepare people for only the most recent of those advances, the others having been fully integrated already). Each thing changed the world, but human beings are still the ones doing the fabulous work of adapting and rising to new challenges. How wonderful, then, to be faced with evidence of the fact that our children are, at the threshold of yet another world-changing set of inventions, adapting beautifully. Arthur C. Clarke knew what he was talking about when he wrote “Childhood's End.” But unlike the world Clarke writes about, there is absolutely no good reason we immigrants have to be left behind.
Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work.
To me, a digital immigrant with a very minimal accent, this sounds like a perfect description of the difference between the unschooling learning environment, and the school one. Prensky proves this theory for me with the following statement:
“Future” content is to a large extent, not surprisingly, digital and technological. But while it includes software, hardware, robotics, nanotechnology, genomics, etc. it also includes the ethics, politics, sociology, languages and other things that go with them. This “Future” content is extremely interesting to today’s students. But how many Digital Immigrants are prepared to teach it? Someone once suggested to me that kids should only be allowed to use computers in school that they have built themselves. It’s a brilliant idea that is very doable from the point of view of the students’ capabilities. But who could teach it?
No one can. But children can learn it, and that's what matters most. It's about the learning, not about the teaching. And I think that's why so many parents are afraid of the pervasiveness of digital technology in their children's lives, and what they're doing with it. But unschooling offers, to my thinking, one of the best ways for the immigrant to bridge the gap to their native child. Again, Mr. Prensky:
“Sure they have short attention spans—for the old ways of learning,” says a professor. Their attention spans are not short for games, for example, or for anything else that actually interests them. As a result of their experiences Digital Natives crave interactivity—an immediate response to their each and every action. Traditional schooling provides very little of this compared to the rest of their world (one study showed that students in class get to ask a question every 10 hours). So it generally isn’t that Digital Natives can’t pay attention, it’s that they choose not to.
School simply cannot provide adequate interactivity. But unschooling, where a dedicated and genuinely interested parent is right there beside the child, experiencing the same things (but probably in different ways), is a way to achieve that interactivity, and continue to minimize the gap between the digital native and the digital immigrant.
So what does all this mean for me, for my children, for our family?
I am in absolute agreement with Mr. Prensky's final statement, that holds true no matter what label you hang on your child's learning path:
Yet these educators know something is wrong, because they are not reaching their Digital Native students as well as they reached students in the past. So they face an important choice.
On the one hand, they can choose to ignore their eyes, ears and intuition, pretend the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant issue does not exist, and continue to use their suddenly-much-less-effective traditional methods until they retire and the Digital Natives take over.
Or they can chose instead to accept the fact that they have become Immigrants into a new Digital world, and to look to their own creativity, their Digital Native students, their sympathetic administrators and other sources to help them communicate their still-valuable knowledge and wisdom in that world’s new language.
My children are clearly digital natives. But I don't need to let that make me feel different, feel separate. Because they are also native guides, if I choose to walk along with them.
Laureen is a writer, a professional editor, a scuba instructor, a beginning sailor, a traveler, and an obsessive researcher who's chiefly focused on, and delighted with, her husband Jason and her sons Rowan and Kestrel. She's a lifelong Californian, which lends a very distinctive spin to both her ideas and her politics, and she's discovered, in her peregrinations, that the world is far smaller yet far more fascinating than anyone gives it credit for being. She holds forth her opinions on that in her blog, The Elemental Mom