Today’s students are experts at skimming and
instantly sharing information. But they’ll need to do
more than skim through the 21st century.
Irecently saw a text message that one of my middle school students sent a friend: “First, he left me a voice mail, so I sent him a text on his cell, then he contacted me on Facebook, so I e-mailed him on my Blackberry. Two days later he sent me an instant message, but I
wasn’t online. How will I meet him?”
This hyperconnectedness that doesn’t always lead to
connection is a hallmark of what I call the digital brain. It’s
how many of our students live their lives. This lifestyle has
benefits, but it also causes problems. If we want our students
to have the life skills the 21st century will demand of them,
we must be aware of those problems.
Throughout their long lives, our students will not be
passive viewers, but participants in an interactive, digital
world. We adults must help all students assimilate technology
into their lives in a way that will enhance—not eclipse—skills
like sustained thinking and connecting to fellow humans.
According to Daniel Pink (2005), two skills will make our
students successful in the 21st century: high concept—the
ability to detect patterns, connect unrelated ideas, and create
something new—and high touch—the ability to empathize,
read faces and gestures, and inspire joy in oneself and others.
So what does the kind of frenetic digital communication
that the girl in my opening anecdote engaged in mean for
these skills? Let’s look at how teenagers typically use digital
tools and toys.
Growing Up Connected
Called both the net generation (Medina, 2008) and digital
natives, our students have grown up using digital media.
Their brains have been conditioned by
using computers to play games, send e-mail, exchange instant messages, or
videoconference through Skype (Small
& Vorgan, 2008). Instead of meeting
face-to-face, they “text” one another on
cell phones. According to a recent study
of 2,000 students between the ages of 8
and 18, on average students spend six
hours a day connected to some digital
communication device, often to several
simultaneously (Tapscott, 2009). They
do homework while listening to iPods,
sending instant messages, or watching
movies on their computers.
By adolescence, today’s young people
have become experts at skimming and
scanning. The average person spends
two seconds on each Web site when
searching for information (Small &