The Natives Don’t Know Nothing

31 Jul

Thanks to the Langwitches Blog for linking to this article. If you haven’t already, add Langwitches to your bookmarks or RSS feed. You won’t be disappointed. has a brief article this entitled, “So-Called “Digital Natives” Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows” . The article cites a Northwestern University study on the media savvy of college students. If you know students, you won’t be surprised by the conclusions the researchers made. Most students cite a web sites search ranking as the primary reason for selection while researching a topic. A full quarter cite the fact that a site was ranked first as their ONLY criteria.

I’m not going to paraphrase the rest of the article. You can read it for yourself. But I think it’s important to say something here.


If you work with students who do research, and I’m speaking mostly of middle schoolers and up, you see this all the time. The constructed dichotomy of “digital natives” versus “digital immigrants” is, in my opinion, only useful for about the first 30 seconds. Yes, natives can figure out how to use a program/site faster than immigrants. Yes, natives are more comfortable with technology. Yes, natives spend 99% of their lives in front of screen (not an actual statistic). But it basically ends there. It all comes down to comfort. Natives are more comfortable with diving right in. That doesn’t make them smarter, and it certainly doesn’t make them critical thinkers.

My point is I think these labels are at best outmoded and unhelpful. At worst, they threaten exactly what we educators are trying to do: nurture critical thinkers who don’t take everything at face value. Working under the assumption that because students know how to use technology they can therefore successfully navigate the internet for important, trustworthy information is flawed. This lets students off the hook for learning research skills and teachers for teaching them. Students learn to trust information simply because it’s easily accessible and popular.

So how do we rectify this? What is the best way to teach media skills? I’d love to hear what people think about this topic.


Posted by on July 31, 2010 in Insights


Tags: , ,

8 responses to “The Natives Don’t Know Nothing

  1. Greg Dhuyvetter

    August 1, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Great article
    You articulate perfectly the other half of a problem I’ve had with the digital citizenship status metaphor. I still believe that the article was important and the greatest “ah ha” moment of it’s time, but in some cases these classifications are starting to slow down progress rather than help move us forward (something, I’m sure never intended by the original author).
    Too many teachers cling to their “digital immigrant” status as if it were a protected disability, and as you point out so clearly, too often we automatically assume that students have “magical” powers that we can’t fully comprehend.
    Your reflections point to the next frontier (or battleground) in the digital revolution. Thanks.

    • Matt Arguello

      August 1, 2010 at 10:40 am

      I think you’re absolutely correct about some teachers clinging to the digital immigrant label. Unfortunately, some do so with a sense of pride or an air of “I’m getting away with something.” I also agree that the distinction was probably helpful at the time. However, I think we need to continually remind ourselves that kids are immigrants to life in general. They don’t have things figured out yet. That’s our job, to guide them. Thanks for your comment.

  2. tomwhitby

    August 1, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Is it possible that our educators, products of previous generations, have the research skills, but lack the comfort level to utilize the technology to its fullest potential in terms that digital natives would be more familiar? Our students have a comfort with technology, but are not having their much needed skills taught using these tools with which they are more comfortable.Texting and gaming seem to dominate their activities. Is it the educational equivalent of going from analog to digital, cable to fiber optics, Beta to VHS, VHS to DVD? Are we in between? Is it a question of people, or in this example, educators, catching up to technology or is that something that can never be done?

    • Matt Arguello

      August 1, 2010 at 10:50 am

      I’m going to try to give my answers to your questions in an orderly fashion.
      1) Yes. I think many educators possess real research skills but lack the comfort/familiarity with technology to fully utilize it. But let’s not fail to point out that technologies like online research databases (Lexus Nexus, JStor, and the like) are not new.
      2) This is an interesting idea. I think maybe we’re in an in between stage. My impression is that we’re only now getting to the point where utilization of these tools is becoming a requirement for new educators. There’s a huge group of existing educators who were never required to do this, and are still not. Those of us who are new to education and established educators who effectively use technology are in a hurry for everyone to catch up, mostly because we see the benefits and necessity.
      3) I don’t think it’s really possible to catch up with technology. It’s changing too rapidly, and it’s too diverse. But there are certain tools that should be in every educators toolbox. Perhaps it’s our job as tech leaders to identify what these tools are.

      Thanks, as always, for stimulating the conversation.

  3. Harold Shaw

    August 1, 2010 at 11:30 am

    This is an issue that I have been wrestling with since I wrote back in March 2008.

    I don’t believe that there are digital native or immigrants there are just people who use technology and those that don’t. Some of us just use it more effectively.

    Thanks for initiating the conversation


    • Matt Arguello

      August 3, 2010 at 10:36 am

      I also responded on your blog.

      I agree with you that “digital native” is not a very accurate label. Unfortunately, it stuck and has taken on a life of its own. I hoping that, with time, we’ll move past this and realize that these are just tools that need mastery like any others.

  4. Steve Davis

    August 1, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    I think that the issue of media skills is similar to the teaching of writing skills.

    My middle school students can write sentences, paragraphs, and communicate efficiently and effectively with a variety of audiences.

    Does this mean we can label them “writers” like we would Ernest Hemingway or Chuck Palahniuk?


    It takes time for students to become good writers, and for many of them, the most sophisticated piece of writing they will create is an email to their boss.

    It is the same with the native/immigrant argument.

    Some of our students, err digital natives/immigrants, will become the next Kevin Rose or Sergey Brin.

    But not all of them.

    For most of our students, the most sophisticated thing they will do with a computer will be to download a movie or email their boss.

    • Matt Arguello

      August 3, 2010 at 10:40 am

      Your exactly right. These are just skills that need to be taught like any other. I also think you’re right that many of our students will not be doing very sophisticated things with computers. However, in addition to teaching basic skills, one of my goals is to give students a taste of what is possible. Along the way I hope a few of them are inspired to push themselves .


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