Funeral for a Digital Immigrant

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in the presence of God and in the company of the education profession to lay to rest our dear brother, the Digital Immigrant.

To most, the Digital Immigrant was a hapless but earnest educator, who, though born before 1980, struggled mightily to assimilate into the culture of his students, the Digital Natives, while never losing his heavy digital accent or his exotic, pre-digital customs, such as linear thought, critical reasoning, and printing out a document in order to edit it. 

To some, he was a symbol of everything wrong with education, the embodiment of all that is dated and dessicated about the practice of teaching. He was the Sage on the Stage, rather than the Guide on the Side. Crucial though his subject matter remains in preparing informed, participating citizens, he could not manage to make it relevant by podcasting, Wordling, blogging, tweeting or gaming. His classroom remained tragically unflipped and unhip.

To me, though, and I knew him well, the Digital Immigrant was the latest incarnation in a long line of ideas, mental models, and hypotheses about education that are proposed by visionaries, taken up by the apparatus of the profession, spread like the Gospel, used as a bludgeon to beat teachers and students, and then, ultimately debunked and abandoned.

When news of his untimely demise began making the rounds, I mourned for his tragically abbreviated life. But we come to bury him, not to praise him, and to ask, at long last, my dear brother and sister educators: Can we please stop doing this now?

***

I’m not interested in critiquing Marc Prensky’s original digital immigrant/digital native model.  That has already been done here, here, and here (I’ve also done a bit of it here). And, in any case, my indictment is not against Prensky. He did exactly what we keep brilliant people around to do.  He observed a new phenomenon, thought deeply about its meaning, and constructed a model to explain how it worked and to imagine the implications. We need more of this kind of thinking, not less. Our visionaries are not the problem, nor are our academics, whose research refines, extends and yes, sometimes debunks, the work of our visionaries. 

The problem is our tendency, as a profession, to follow a depressingly predictable pattern whenever someone comes up with an interesting New Thing:

1. A smart visionary observes, thinks, and hypothesizes, then creates a fascinating model or metaphor to interpret what we see in schools, usually along with a proposal to revolutionize some aspect of education.

2. Influential opinion leaders accept the New Thing uncritically, often taking its metaphors literally.

3. We get excited about the New Thing–it really seems to explain a lot! It could really change everything!–and spread the meme with every tool at our disposal, including professional journals, PD days, conferences, books, websites, Twitter, and all manner of online and face-to-face forums.

4. We declare those who question or disagree with the New Thing the enemies of progress. (This is tricky, because those in our profession who reject every new idea out of hand actually are the enemies of progress.  It just doesn’t follow that everyone who rejects a particular new idea is among their number).

5. We insist that teachers adjust curriculum and instruction according to the New Thing. Administrators evaluate teachers on their incorporation of the New Thing into their units and lessons. The district newsletter proudly informs the community that we are doing the New Thing.

6. Researchers examine the New Thing, find its flaws, and publish their findings in academic journals.

7. The popular news media “expose” the problems with the New Thing. (“Does your child’s school have the New Thing? Well, researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education now say that the New Thing is a lot of hooey! But how do taxpayers feel about it?”)

8. The education profession appears foolish. The public loses confidence in us.

9. Many within the profession become cynical and afraid of all new ideas, lest they fall victim to another New Thing.

10. Really good ideas that were not as sexy as the New Thing, including the unglamorous kernel of truth at the center of the New Thing, are neglected.

***

Opponents of public education want to convince the public that teachers are lazy, administrators helpless, and academic researchers out of touch with the realities of the classroom.  They have already convinced a large swath of the public that our associations place the preferences of adults far above the needs of children, and that our profession as a whole is a self-serving waste of public money.

The solutions the education “reformers” propose, such as allocating public school funds to vouchers and for-profit charter schools, evaluating teachers solely on students’ standardized test scores, abolishing tenure, allowing Ivy League graduates to teach with a 5-week crash course and business executives to become administrators, just to name a few, are no more evidence-based than our shiny New Things.  Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan admitted as much in Education Week, when he said, speaking of the Race to the Top reforms,

“…the whole turnaround stuff is relatively new, but I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work and that’s the evidence that I’m looking at.”

Apparently, Duncan’s best defense of his administration’s signature education initiative is that although there is no proof that any of its components will work, there is proof that some of what schools are doing now doesn’t work. Give that man a $4.35 billion grant!

The education “reformers” have the support of the Gates Foundation, influential business leaders and politicians, and the federal Department of Education to give their evidence-free proposals the glow of credibility.  Educators have little but our relationships with parents and students and the resulting moral authority to stand on now. (Oh, and Diane Ravitch–we’ve got her!)

We can make a strong case that the dogma of education reform lacks any basis in empirical fact, but we can’t make that argument if we’re not willing to subject our own ideas to the same standard. Let’s not squander the moral authority we still possess.

As for the Digital Immigrant, requiescat in pace. Amen.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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10 Responses to Funeral for a Digital Immigrant

  1. Brian Hanson-Haridng says:

    Damn! And I was just getting used to his accent!

  2. Frithjof says:

    Without having the benefit of the discussion about digital immigrants (here here here and here) I can volunteer my own experience as someone born well before 1980 and a father to a digital native.
    Using Digital Media tools (like this one) is changing the way we communicate. It helps us connect with others, it helps us raise the level of education for all and therefore even avoid conflict.
    I spend every day educating business people in the use of these tools – because they have recognized the shift in the way we communicate and who we trust.
    It is vitally important that teachers pay attention to the way digital natives learn, feel and communicate. Note: WE have to learn and observe so we can all live in better, more connected societies.

    • I work in a high school in which the students are all of high socio-economic status and have computers at home, devices in their pockets, etc. Some of them exhibit the behavior ascribed to “digital natives,” others do not. Very few seem to be the content-creators educators have been told they are. That being said, we also have some teachers born well before 1980 who do exhibit the “digital native” behaviors and mindset. So my point is not that these technologies aren’t changing the way people communicate, but that 1) The shift isn’t entirely generational and 2) It is not as universal as advertised.

      The content-creator question interests me quite a bit. In any form, with any technology, from the printing press to the tuba, far more people are content-consumers than content-creators. But we have educational consultants telling teachers that all their kids are content-creators at home, and that we are simply holding them back in school. This is demonstrably false. If we want them to create content, just as if we wanted them to write a composition for the tuba, we have to teach them how.

      And even if they were all the seamless digital natives of legend, and even if many more of them were content-creators, then our role would still be to teach them to use their tools ethically and intelligently. For that, of course, teachers need serious tech skills.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting! It’s nice to hear from someone outside the education bubble.

  3. Frithjof says:

    I think we still have a way to go until we see the scope of the changes.
    I organized a panel discussion on Social Media and Democracy last week (http://tweet4ok.com/panel/ ) and was asked a similar question.
    I’m waiting for the video footage so I can upload it to my YouTube channel – I’m also thinking of a good way to continue the discussion on the topic… stay tuned :-)

  4. Matt Malcore says:

    I have often wondered if a truer definition of digital native is “one who is not afraid to ‘play’ with technology – to try things without a guide – to be unafraid to press a button and see what happens”. And, from all that, become smarter in the process.
    Nice story – thanks.

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  7. Jim Julius says:

    Just came here via your comment on the essay about writing in The Atlantic. As a former k12 teacher now involved in online education in higher ed, I think you’re right on. For me the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “thing” is the case du jour I’m applying to your 10-step model. Based on that, I might suggest a few additions:
    #1: In addition to a metaphor/model, the visionary might implement a prototype, resulting in lots of anecdotal “evidence” for the potential of the New Thing.
    #2: In parallel to #7, education-related media (not just professional journals) and some popular media help build hype around the New Thing. Many from across the educational/political spectrum find reason to hope in the New Thing.
    #2/#3: Education foundations create grants, ostensibly to research/test the New Thing, but this just adds to the hype and self-evident importance of the New Thing.
    #4: Anecdotes and decontextualized data from initial versions of the New Thing are proffered repeatedly as unquestionable evidence of this progress.
    #5: Pressure may also come from corporate donors, federal/state/county agencies, boards of trustees, politicians, and others eager to demonstrate their education savvy and influence, but who are not well connected to actual schools/teachers.
    #6: The unchangeable proponents of a conservative educational approach delightedly point to the emerging New Thing naysayers as clear evidence that progressive ideas are dumb and their tried-and-true methods are the One True Thing.
    #7: Conservative comments on media reports of the New Thing’s failure shift blame to the poor, minorities, immigrants, and teacher unions. Liberal comments shift blame to NCLB, standardized testing, societal injustice, and the defunding of public schools.
    8, 9, 10 – Perfect as is.

    • Spot on. Yes. If all the evidence comes from exactly one program, run by the most knowledgeable, committed proponents of the program, especially if they have grant money to burn, we must be skeptical about attempts to extrapolate those conclusions to ordinary classrooms with teachers who got an afternoon of PD in the New Thing. Or none.

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