Through the Internet, media is delivered at blazing fast speeds and is on-demand at all hours of the day. How then could we blame our children for dozing off during a lecture, or while reading a dusty copy of Hamlet?

Educating Digital Natives

My contemporaries and I didn’t exactly grow up with the Internet, nor were we digital natives. In fact, I didn’t have an Internet connection in my home until long after I had graduated from high school. Instead, I remember spending much of my childhood waking up early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons on the old CRT television and listening to my favorite stations on the radio—you know, the one that also played cassettes. To me, and everyone else at the time, this was high tech. I certainly didn’t grow up carrying around a tablet or smartphone in hand, as most kids these days do.

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and I’m a huge advocate for it. For many educators my age, it’s common to have a somewhat disdainful or bitter attitude towards technology and how it’s affecting our children. It’s easy to criticize them for always being glued to their devices and choosing to stare at a screen all day long instead of going out to play as we did. It’s also easy to get frustrated with our kids for texting or using their smartphone at the dinner table when we just want to have some quality time as a family.

But, times are changing and I accept that. If you recall, our parents made similar remarks to us about the television and the radio. They told us to “quit rotting our brains” and go play outside and develop real relationships by riding our bikes and playing in the street with friends. They criticized us for spending too much time indoors like we do to our kids.

Childhood Is Changing

For better or for worse, the Internet has completely changed the way our children interact with each other, spend their free time, and learn. Their equivalent of riding bikes in the cul-de-sac is playing Fortnite on their consoles; their idea of hanging out with friends in the neighborhood is interacting on social media. Now, this isn’t mean to criticize digital natives but simply illustrates how technology has changed the concept of childhood.

While I would visit the library to devour books, magazines, and other print resources as a child, my kids now read articles on their tablets and watch videos on YouTube when they want to learn something new. However, kids today aren’t any less curious or hungry for knowledge than we were; they simply use different methods to satisfy their desire for information.

When looking at it this way, it’s a lot easier to understand why kids are no longer as engaged in the classroom. Growing up, I read books for both entertainment and for learning. My medium of choice was print media and besides the television and radio, there wasn’t much else competing for my attention. So, when we read in class or were assigned books for homework, I wasn’t disappointed at all. It would be as if my teacher made me play videogames or watch a Netflix series for homework. My 12-year-old self wouldn’t have argued with that.

In contrast, digital natives are exposed to rich multimedia that’s hundreds of times more engaging, eye-catching, and effective than “old media.” Additionally, this media is delivered at blazing fast speeds and is on-demand at all hours of the day. How then could we blame our children for dozing off during a lecture, or while reading a dusty copy of Hamlet?

Learning Methods vs. Learning Outcomes

I also believe it’s important to make a distinction between forms of media and what’s actually being delivered through that media. It may be easy to view videogames or online videos as “time-wasters” and books as “educational.” However, it truly comes down to what our children are consuming, not how they’re consuming it.

For example, would you rather have your child spend hours playing an educational game that helps them learn a new language or spend hours reading a book that distracts them from getting their Spanish homework done? In this case, it’s not about the technology or media being used, but the learning outcome. If my child becomes fluent in a foreign language through YouTube videos, would I be less happy than if he had learned it through a textbook? Of course not!

By changing the way that we, as educators, look at technology, I think that we can better reach the next generation of learners. Rather than thinking of the iPhone that competes for our students’ attention as “bad” and a print copy of Great Expectations as “good,” we can see eye-to-eye with learners. We simply have to recognize that the traditional classroom no longer meets students where they’re at. We’re using bronze-age media to try to reach a generation of digital natives who have all the media they could want in their pocket.

My Plea to Teachers

So, teachers, principals, and educators: I beg you to lay down your weapons and quit waging a war against technology. If we are to view modern media and the Internet as the enemy, it’s clear that we’ve already lost the war. We simply can’t use outdated teaching methods like books and dry lectures to compete for our students’ attention. It’s like using swords and muskets to fight against an army with machine guns and tanks.

Think about it this way: if we ourselves had trouble sitting down in class and paying attention, can we really expect digital natives to be engaged with static media? As such, we need to equip ourselves with the appropriate tools to reach young learners and fight against other sources that are vying for their time and attention. As soon as they leave the classroom—and even within class time—other people are competing for our student’s attention.

Therefore, let’s use the most effective and engaging technologies available in our classrooms to take advantage of the time we have with our students. Instead of digging in our heels, why not embrace educational technologies like VR, educational apps, and more? It’s time that we take back the classroom by using the best tools that the modern era can offer.

Let’s start fighting fire with fire.