We Need to Rethink Education for Digital Natives

A look at the educational shifts needed for those born in the digital age — today’s always-on learner.

Illustration of students watching teacher at a chalkboard in a classroom.

Artwork by Monica Acedo.

The teacher stands at the front of the room, lecturing on the high points of this week’s lesson. It’s a traditional chalk-and-talk approach — notes are taken, content is broken down, and students ideally walk away with a better understanding of the chapter, the experiment, the equation, or whatever the topic.

Contrast this scenario of how many of today’s teachers and administrators learned themselves, with ideas from young students in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, engaged in designing the schools of the future. They see schools with superfast scooters transporting them between classes, time-travel excursions to key moments, and fully sustainable buildings that are self-sufficient in power, water, and food.

A transition from one model to the other is happening, and many innovative learning institutions and educators have already been working for decades on how to structure schools and curriculum differently.

The rest of us are quickly catching on to what they already know — it’s time to rethink how we get students to learn.

Gen X, meet Gen Z

Twentieth-century teaching methods and 21st-century technology represent a generation gap like no other, and that disconnect is coming head-to-head in the classroom. Gen Z isn’t interested in traditional passive learning. More than half say they learn best by doing, while only one in 10 say they learn best by listening. The students’ results make it clear: failure rates for lecture classes are 55 percent higher than active-learning environments.

Gen Zers are “digital natives,” a term coined by writer and speaker Marc Prensky. He originally used the term to refer to millennials born after 1980, as they were the first to grow up with connected computers. But Gen Z takes this term to a new level. Born in 1996 and later, these students grew up not only with computers and internet access, but also with smartphones, social media, and mobile devices.

Pullout quote by Tanya Avrith.

“They don’t even view technology as technology — it’s just how they communicate,” Tanya Avrith, author and personal branding/digital communication teacher at North Broward Preparatory School, says of her students. “It’s like how I don’t see my table and chair as anything special. It’s the same thing for my classes and technology. Technology isn’t anything special to them. It just is.”

These digital natives are fast-paced, visually-oriented, nonlinear, always-on learners. They have a built-in instinct to swipe right when reading books, and the pace of technological change doesn’t phase them. It’s no wonder the old rules of engagement don’t resonate with them, and, more importantly, aren’t preparing them to thrive in an unknown future.

“The role of a teacher is fundamentally changing,” says Richard Culatta, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “In the past, teachers were the content providers because they were the only really reliable, ubiquitous form of delivering instruction. That’s just not the case anymore.”

Always-on learning

Digital natives want — and need — new structures for learning, and these pervasive demands are changing the game. In the past, if you wanted to learn something, you enrolled in a class. For digital natives, though, learning is triggered by the need to know, rather than the need to certify.

They’re collaborative and connected — they can get in touch with anyone and everyone, right from their phones. And digital natives thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards, preferring games over reading. Today’s students prefer images to text, which may help develop visual-spatial skills, but can negate the potential for deep, reflective reading ability. Consider that the average college grad at the beginning of this century — which is now nearly two decades ago — had spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (and another 20,000 hours watching TV). These stats have likely trended up, not down.

Today’s students also like to parallel process and multitasking. It’s rare for a student to have time set aside specifically for a solitary task, learning included. While some believe using technology from birth has wired a digital native’s brain to multitasking, the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report finds that millennials use technology the same way their parents do — as passive media consumers. They’re used to receiving information fast, in a random access manner, and resisting slower step-by-step logic, which can lead to quick, but less effective absorption of critical information.

Often, these characteristics lead to digital natives being labeled as less focused. Marc says that perhaps they simply are choosing not to focus. After all, from the student’s point of view, it’s instructors who make education worth paying attention to — or not. The classroom, then, is competing with all the other stimulating experiences.

With the internet as their school, digital natives have access to unlimited content, enabling learning to be constant. Learning now doesn’t depend on time, location, classrooms, or old-school lesson plans. Whether it’s watching an online tutorial, reading Wikipedia, or getting support and advice from others around the world via social networks, learning is something to be done — and it’s done on the go.

Facilitating learning in favor of teaching

Still, it’s not necessary to throw all education theory out the window just yet. It’s not about changing education to become mediocre entertainment, but educators need to shift from being providers or curators of content to leaders of learning experiences.

Pullout quote by Tanya Avrith.

“I think we’re going to see teachers going back to their roots around teaching and learning — going back to a fundamental understanding of pedagogy and how we learn,” Tanya says. “We really need to look at the way we’re getting students to think and understand. They need to be challenged in a way that they’re required to think critically and to create — that’s important because they have so much access now.”

Mark Scott, secretary for the Department of Education in NSW, agrees. “We need to help students to be critical thinkers, with robust ethical frameworks, demonstrating excellent judgment — with resilience to endure and the capacity to reflect. We need to help them become concerned and active citizens.”

Schools and educators are now being pushed to focus more on developing how they teach as they engage digital natives in a way that’s consistent with their world — anchored in technology and connectedness. “Take that risk and get online,” Tanya says. “Schools have invested a lot in the tools.” It’s important to reassess existing lessons and processes to see how technology can play a bigger role.

Applying it to the real world

Globally, many schools, school districts, and individual educators are recognizing the need for change and shifting their mindsets to best support their classrooms, students, and the workforce of tomorrow.

Pullout quote by Richard Culatta.

“I was visiting a school recently, and saw students use digital devices to make genome maps of the indigenous plant life around their campus. It was a fantastic project,” says Richard. “But too often I see students in a computer lab reading some stuff on the screen, then clicking next, next, next. If you’re going to help students own their own learning and become creators and collaborators, then you can’t take the powerful tools we have and just do the same thing we’ve always done, but on a screen.”

In NSW, for example, they’re embracing that notion, driving innovative, inspired teaching and learning. Every August, their statewide Education Week celebrates the achievements of public schools — specifically in equipping students with the skills they need to thrive in a globalized world. This year’s theme was “Today’s schools — creating tomorrow’s world,” which put the spotlight on how the NSW Department of Education is equipping students with the skills they need to thrive in a globalized world.

“We are supporting teachers with the tools, resources, and learning initiatives to ensure the students of NSW are equipped with the skills and knowledge to solve the problems of tomorrow,” says Joachim Cohen, schools technology innovation lead for NSW Department of Education, “and to meet the needs of the new digital, global economy.”

Within NSW schools, this process involves providing schools with the opportunity to experience STEM-powered digital technology, connected devices, and teacher training opportunities. Additionally, the state continues to challenge students and educators to think big, leveraging new, creative lessons and processes that push creative problem-solving.

This year, the NSW state education office hosted a Game Changer Challenge. Student participants from primary and secondary schools designed their ideal school of the future — which included those ideas of superfast scooters, sustainable schools, and time-travel excursions.

While teachers gained exposure to design thinking principles as a teaching method, students learned to collaborate, create, and use communication and critical-thinking skills. At the same time, both students and teachers had the opportunity to engage, question convention, and, ultimately, play a major role in disrupting and innovating their own teaching and learning.

NSW is one of many examples signaling a major shift in global education — a shift that will require both students and teachers to commit to learning in the classroom and outside of it, and often well beyond the bounds of traditional education.

“We need to very, very quickly turn our attention to make sure we’re preparing teachers and leaders to actually know how to use technology and connectivity in ways that make a difference and really transform learning,” Richard says. By doing so, teachers will be better equipped to help students prepare for their unknown futures.

“No amount of content we can give them is going to be completely relevant for what they do,” Richard adds. “We have to really rethink and make sure we’re really teaching them how to be learners, creators, and problem-solvers, and to distinguish between true and false information. Those are going to be critical skills that will help them survive in a complex world, doing things we can’t even anticipate now.”

Read more articles about creativity in education in our Back to School collection, and see how the Adobe Education Exchange can help you incorporate technology into your curricula.