‘Teaching Digital Natives’: Difference Between ‘Relevant’ and ‘Real’

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

Review of Marc Prensky’s Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning, Corwin Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4129-7541-4.

I picked this book up because, as I have mentioned before, I worry that as a teacher educator I am educating today’s teachers for yesterday’s students. Although Prensky has some interesting insights into today’s and tomorrow’s learners, the concept he is presenting is not new and he admits this. What the book does offer, however, is specific ways in which today’s learner is different and some specific ways in which teachers can address these differences.


Throughout the book, Prensky encourages the teacher to see their students differently, as partners in learning. This concept is very similar to what is known as student-centered learning, problem-based learning, constructivism and many other progressive models that were developed in the 20th century. Prensky asserts that today’s students are not less able than previous generations but that their tolerance and needs have changed, and what and how they learn is different from students in the past. In the introduction, he makes his view very clear: “They want ways of learning that are meaningful to them, ways that make them see — immediately — that the time they are spending in their formal education is valuable, and ways that make good use of the technology they know is their birthright” (p. 3).

For Prensky, this immediacy is one of the keys to understanding today’s students. Technology allows them to participate in real ways in life across the globe, whether in something as serious as the events during the “Arab Spring” of 20111 or as trivial as voting on “American Idol.” He goes on to assert that teachers do not necessarily have to become experts in technology but that they need to re-imagine their pedagogy so that the student themselves take responsibility for their own learning using the technology they are so familiar with and so fond of.

By “real” he means immediately applicable to their lives. This is where technology can come in and make a difference.

As a teacher educator, I know that the notions he presents are not new. However, one of the points Prensky stresses is the difference between “relevant” and “real” — and that caught my eye. I have always been concerned with ensuring my students’ learning is relevant for them and the students they will be teaching. Prensky says that relevance is not enough. By “real” he means immediately applicable to their lives. This is where technology can come in and make a difference. Rather than only reading about historical events and watching videos about them, they can take virtual tours of many places, participating in or even creating simulations.

If a space launch is coming up, they can compute everything from budgets to payloads. They can use Skype to talk to real scientists about real-world problems. They can participate in urban planning projects for the future to help them think about and plan for the future they are going into. While these ideas are not really new to any progressive/constructivist educator, the reminder that students may have ways and means to accomplish tasks that the teacher may not have imagined is worth keeping in mind.

1 Jean-Marie Guehenno, “The Arab Spring Is 2011, Not 1989,” NY Times, 21 Apr. 2011.

One Response

  1. I never really liked the concept of ‘digital natives’. This blog posting explains why: http://www.coding2learn.org/blog/2013/07/29/kids-cant-use-computers/

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