I have been doing research on teaching students how to assess historical primary sources (both print and digital) and utilize historical thinking in and out of the classroom. One of the best sources I’ve relied upon for this project is the 2011 publication “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking Grades 7-12, written by history teacher Bruce Lesh. The book is wonderful and I really like his lesson plans. Many of Lesh’s activities challenge students to imagine themselves working as curators, archivists, or some other public historian who is interpreting the past for a larger audience. I hope to write more about Lesh’s book in a future post, but for this essay I am going to focus on a brief comment Lesh makes on page 33:
I am always amazed at how visual images, be they photographs, hand drawn, painted, sculpted, stimulate conversation among my students. It is a testament to the much discussed visual generation, of which they are a part. Inundated with images on television and online, combined with the decline of newspapers and print reading, this generation is more inclined to gather information from visual elements or sparse narratives. The predisposition for the visual over the written, particularly complicated text, is also indicative of the fact that students have been trained to see the study of history as one that involves textual sources…to the exclusion of other types of historical sources.
What Lesh essentially argues here is that his students are “digital natives.” They think and understand the world differently than older generations thanks to their participation in what Lesh describes as the “visual generation,” a new era of students who allegedly don’t like reading and who better process information through the use of visual images and short texts. Because our students are more comfortable with visual images, we should cater our lesson plans to that “learning style.”
The concept of a “digital native” was first penned by Marc Prensky in 2001. Digital natives, according to Prensky, are people who were born into what many refer to as “the digital age.” They are inherently different from “digital immigrants” who were born before the “digital age” but who have “immigrated” to this new age. The use of technology, social media, texting, etc. comes naturally to digital natives, whereas this technology is akin to learning a new language for digital immigrants.
While I agree with Lesh that history instruction has unnecessarily relied upon textual sources to the determent of visual sources such as maps, paintings, and photographs, I cannot agree with the idea of an existing “visual generation” that has a natural predisposition for visual items over textual sources. Additionally, I believe there are no such things as “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Here are a few reasons why:
- Much of the digital technology we use on a daily basis was developed by “digital immigrants” who were not a part of the “visual generation.”
- Since this technology was developed by “digital immigrants,” any notion of a cognitive difference between Millenials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, etc. lies on shaky ground. Rather than creating a dichotomy that differentiates how people process and apply information, perhaps we should consider the idea that all generations have a disposition to prefer visual images and sparse narratives over dense text. If we acknowledge that the teaching of history from the early 20th century to the present has had many shortcomings and that many students hate the way history is taught and not the discipline itself, then it signals a failure of learning theory, content delivery, and the creation of lesson plans with little purpose among educators rather than any cognitive difference in students today. One of the most exciting aspects of the digital humanities is that historians have so many opportunities to utilize sources that go beyond textual descriptions of the past. I would argue that everyone can have their perceptions of the past sharpened through visual imagery, not just the “visual generation.”
- Jonathan Berg, a Washington, D.C. Library Director and author of the awesomely titled blog BeerBrarian, cites a recent study in which 315 college students and recent graduates were surveyed about their use of digital technology. The study concluded that younger people were slightly more comfortable using digital technology than people older than them, but it also concluded that younger people were no more comfortable creating technology than older people. In sum, young people are comfortable being consumers of digital technology, but there is no evidence to suggest that younger people are comfortable in their cognitive ability to create technology. Additionally, the study also shows that not all young people have access to the same technology. Many people use computers that were created ten years ago and/or don’t have access to smartphone technology.
- Just because you have a smartphone or participate on Twitter does not mean that you are a “digital native” or that you understand the technology, source code, or power interests behind the creation of that technology. Again, consumption and creation are two very different concepts.
In sum, the notion of a “visual generation” composed of “digital natives” is a myth.