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Teaching ‘screenagers’ – how the digital world is changing learners

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Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2012 with co-author Tim Falla about how best to exploit currently available digital resources, Paul Davies looks at how the digital world is changing learners.

The term screenager was coined 15 years ago by the author Douglas Rushkoff in his book Playing the Future. He used the term to refer to young people who have been reared from infancy on a diet of TV, computers and other digital devices. On the surface, screenager is just another mildly-annoying made-up word, like edutainment and infomercial. Look deeper, however, and the word contains a clear implication: that teenagers are somehow more different than they used to be because their brains have been permanently altered by constant exposure to technology.

In the media, headline writers love to seize on reports which appear to confirm that implication. “Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilizing’ the human mind,” warned the Guardian on 24th February 2009; “How the internet is rewiring our brains,” lectured the Daily Mail on 7th June 2010; “Web addicts have brain changes,” claimed the BBC news site on 11th January 2012.

But go to the primary sources and you’ll find that very few of these studies actually claim to show what the headline writers claim they claim. For example, while the study of web addicts did indeed show their brains were different from non-addicts, the differences are just as likely to explain their addiction as be caused by it. The researchers took no ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of the addicts’ brains and could therefore make no claims about changes – but you would never know that from the media coverage.

Perhaps it is not surprising that newspapers should have a grudge against today’s teenagers (who don’t buy them) and against the internet (which is killing them off). So, claims which reflect badly on both are given top billing. When Susan Greenfield, the Oxford-based brain scientist, recently suggested a link between the Internet and autism, it was splashed over several front pages. But again, the headlines turned out to be misleading and Greenfield later clarified her position: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all.”

Not all the headlines are negative, of course. Some claim that modern technology has boosted young people’s cognitive skills and ‘rewired’ their brains (whatever that means) in positive ways. Today’s youngsters are supreme multi-taskers with brains that are more active and more efficient than previous generations. They may appear to lack focus, or be unable to concentrate, but that’s because we adults don’t quite get what they’re like. In fact, they’re fully evolved to live in a digital environment which has, to a greater or lesser extent, left us behind. Personally, I find these positive claims more refreshing, but the science behind them is equally shaky.

These are important issues for anyone who has to teach or design teaching materials. If screenagers really are a different breed, do they need a different approach? Should lessons be less mono-directional and more fluid? Should printed textbooks be consigned to the dustbin of educational history, along with slates, dunce’s caps and the cane? As with most important issues, the answers are debatable. But perhaps too much attention is being given to questions of format (digital vs traditional) and not enough to questions of content. Sure, an exercise on an iPad can be interactive; so can a conversation. Neither is guaranteed to be worthwhile – it all depends on the content.

Governments are keen to push through legislation stipulating that all teaching materials be digital not because there is good evidence to suggest the students will learn better – there is not – but because they want to save money. And while the state sector races towards a future in which classrooms are high tech and book free, the sons and daughters of rich, high tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley go to Waldorf Schools where there is a not a computer or screen in sight.

If we really want our education systems to prepare students for tomorrow’s digital world, we should worry less about formats and instead focus on what to teach – or what not to teach. A few obvious candidates for omission would be spelling (thanks to spellcheckers), facts (available instantly and everywhere via the internet), and handwriting (who writes by hand these days?). Instead, why not teach them how to filter reliable from unreliable information, an essential skill for the Google generation? Or even how to see through misleading headlines?

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

12 thoughts on “Teaching ‘screenagers’ – how the digital world is changing learners

  1. I’m taking the bait.
    Spelling cannot be an omission candidate, especially in the digital age (at least not yet, with all the autocorrect slips of the keyboard.) I admit, relying on spellcheckers has made me lazy. And I cannot afford it.
    Actually, none of the listed obvious candidates should be omitted.

    I am more concerned about how we teach then the content. Apart from the basics, students should master how to learn (think) and adapt (perform), so as to be ready for lifelong learning: in a way, the factual content can be somewhat marginalized, but the procedural content gets more prominent.

    I remember: my grandmother and her generation were able to quote whole pages of poems, soliloquies, even novels, in several languages, mind you! We did not get that drill.

    Having listened to Shaun Wilden in Belgrade this February (another wonderful OUP Day), I realized that I should stop complaining about the screenagers and accept the reality. Wilden mentioned MarkPegrums’s work on literacies, and it just clicked: Yes, the yellow brick road I am to follow is built around not just language-based literacies, but also information-based, connection-based and remix literacies. The sooner I succeed in accepting this, the more fruitful it will be both for my students and myself.

    I like (some) printed textbooks, but it usually takes quite more than a year to get a new title printed, and then we teachers can assign a critical thinking task to our students: find out what piece of information is outdated and why.

  2. Very interesting article. I believe that some of the points to be omitted are acceptable- except for the spelling. When you learn how to read and write, you must also learn how to spell correctly. And spelling amounts to thinking,

    I reckon it’s crucial for the kids to learn how to think by themselves and rely on their knowledge rather than trusting the computer only.

  3. I agree that content is much more important than format. There seem to me to be pluses (and minuses) on both sides. Traditional coursebooks can, and do, get out of date very quickly, but, that said, they are a surprisingly flexible medium. Too much digital material is still drag and drop, true/false, multiple choice….

  4. Pingback: Teaching ‘screenagers’ – how the digital world is changing learners « Leonardopena's Blog

  5. Pingback: Teaching ‘screenagers’ – how the digital world is changing learners | E-Learning and Online Teaching Today

  6. The digital world doesn’t mean that good old fashioned teaching methods should be left behind. Good old things like flashcards on paper and flannelgraph, file folder songs and board games can make your classroom fun and exciting without all the screens that kids see at home. I advocate some “screen” use in the classroom but try to keep it to a bare minimum

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  8. Without doubt, the most important sentiment in this blog is the final one: “…teach them … how to see through misleading headlines.”

    It seems far too many people lack the skill of analysing and reasoning and merely grab at a fad. To prevent this we need to teach critical thinking. Not only to students but also to teachers (who are often guilty of grabbing wildly at the latest technology and trumpeting the latest website without any real thought behind their enthusiasm).

    And I’ve yet to see the internet do this.

    • Agree on the need to teach critical thinking, and how about adding to that a few lessons (not lectures, but projects, perhaps) about the media environment itself so that children start to understand something of the corporate world that is pulling the pixels. And another thing to highlight: critical feeling, because the best critique is one that is orientated by the deepest feeling for the way we and our world are changing. If the internet is bad at encouraging critical thinking, it is worse at developing people’s emotional intelligence and the depth of their response to their natural and social environment (not unsurprisingly).

  9. I think you have focused the importance of content and selection of materials on the web. Another point is to guide digital writing to get students master writing possibility at different levels of expression. Such a skill is not so easy nowadays where screenagers don’t explore language any more.

  10. Good way of describing, and good piece of writing to obtain facts about my presentation focus, which i am going to convey in academy.

  11. Yes! Finally something about Google.

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