Today’s children are often described as ‘digital natives’ or ‘the net generation’ having grown up with digital devices: laptops; netbooks; Xboxes; Nintendo; Wiis; iPads/Pods/Phones; smartphones; Kindles… Intuitively this rings true as many people have seen babies and toddlers playing with iPads and smartphones with apparently instinctive understanding of the technology. Even in the 1980s and 1990s a common joke was to say that if you couldn’t programme your VHS recorder then you should ask a child to do it. However, this ‘digital natives’ discourse forgets or ignores two important points. The first is that many of today’s digital tools are designed to be very easy to use. Tablets and smartphones don’t come with manuals because the intention is that they should be as intuitive as possible. People don’t need to be taught how to use these devices; users learn as they use. The second point is that learning is what children do. Children learn indiscriminately from the environment that surrounds them. When babies first start eating finger foods then they will eat almost anything: broccoli, courgettes; mushrooms… Then, as they get older children start to develop preferences and many toddlers become ‘picky eaters’ who stay firmly within their gustatory comfort zones. They know what they like and they stick with it. Similarly, young children learn whatever is available. They copy the adults around them and they engage in trial and error. If dropping carrots provokes an interesting reaction from an adult then the child will do it again. If tapping icons on a tablet produces interesting effect then the child is encouraged to continue and try again with other icons (and devices).
As children grow and develop into adults they cease to be undiscriminating and become selective about what kinds of knowledge and skills are useful, relevant or interesting to them. In other words, they become ‘picky learners’. Knowles, in 1970, identified the selective nature of adult learning and established a set of principles, which he called ‘Andragogy for working with adults. Adults (and older children) know what they like and what they need so are more receptive to learning which falls into these zones. Adults whose needs or interests are served by digital tools will quickly learn to use them. For example, people whose new grandchildren live a long way away may start using Skype so that they can see as well as hear the children and Facebook so that they can keep up with family news and photographs. Previously, these adults’ communication needs had been well served by phone, letter and email so there had been no need to learn these new digital tools. For some young people nowadays, their communications toolboxes include a range of digital tools such as Facebook, What’s App and Tumblr so they use these fluently. However, and this is important, as long as their needs are met by the resources they currently use, there will be no need for these young people to learn new tools. The young people now using What’s App are growing into picky learners who use what is appropriate now and will learn new things as needed, just as their parents and grandparents do.
Knowles, M.S. (1970) “The modern practice of adult education; andragogy versus pedagogy” New York : Association Press