Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants


As teachers we are but guests in their world. What does it mean have digital natives in the Montessori classroom?


by José Azarias


Marc Prensky, is credited for coining the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant” at the beginning of this century. Today, we often encounter these two terms when dealing with modern teens and even older elementary children. Yet, we seldom stop to think what these terms really mean. In June of 2016, Mr. Prensky, was quoted explaining the difference between the two terms to the online digital magazine Mashable.


“Digital immigrants are people who grew up in one digital culture and moved into another, while digital natives are people who grew up in one culture. They don’t have two cultures to compare.”

In 2001 the digital landscape was changing very quickly. New information was rapidly becoming available at a rate faster than print media could handle. As teachers, we quickly realized this change and we promptly changed our approach by saying that knowledge was not the memorization of information but the understanding and implementation of knowing how  to find and locate the information that one needs. Today this landscape has evolved even further, and continues to change. The idea of natives and immigrants are strongly debated. Why? Because by understanding the way teens process information will ultimately allow us to have a clear path towards not only how to reach them, but also how we can create an environment in which they can find the information they need. If we are to be totally honest, today’s children are not the same as those 10 years ago, let alone those during Montessori’s time.


So what is the difference and how are we to define these terms today? Simply put, according to Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center, a native is someone who is totally aware and understands technology. Regardless of how we define “understand”, we need to be aware that such natives are very adept at using a variety of platforms even if they don’t know how to code or how the apps they use work.


One of the most striking differences between a native and an immigrant is the technology they use. Natives are very capable and aware of their technological surrounding making use of the most current technology. Essentially, the divide comes down to desktop computing vs. mobile based computing. Today’s teens and youth are far more likely to be termed digital natives than their parents are. They are very capable of using the latest social trends, such as Snapchat, as opposed to Facebook, Pinterest or even email. Yes, you read it correctly, email is indeed considered by many teens an outdated method of communication. In case you didn’t notice, texting has become the new norm!


Because of these variations, there is a distinct difference in the way information, and media is consumed. 9/11 was mainly documented through television, radio, and the newly emerging online media channels who were still in their infancy. Compare this to the 2008 Presidential Election of Barak Obama which was fought, won and covered mainly through social media. Although our teens, are not necessarily tech savvy, they are extremely knowledgeable of what’s going on. They are well aware of their cultural and social technological surroundings and boundaries. This in turn is what sets them aside and makes them natives.


Today, 57% of teens have connected, and made at least one new friend online, with social media and gameplay being the two most active ways. Regardless of whether we want to admit it or not, the online world plays a significant role in how digital natives form their identities. According to the Pew data individuals between the ages of 18-29 are the most likely to use social media as a source of advice, information and cultural identity. When all is said and done, digital natives are those who actually get it. They are able to accept and perceive technology for what it is and what it offers. This in turn allows them to be fully aware and understand that they are empowered with the knowledge and ability to use this technology. Contrary to what some of us “immigrants” might think, the “natives” do not take technology for granted. To ignore this part of a cultural trend would be a mistake. Instead, as teachers, it is our responsibility to understand them, and use the tools they use in order to not only reach them, but empower them, and furthermore, sanction further evolution of this world.



I often hear Montessori teachers, criticize the use of technology in the classroom or at home. The reality is that the majority of those teachers are primary teachers and not elementary. And although there is overwhelmingly a larger number of primary teachers compared to elementary or middle school, it is important that we recognize that primary teachers are not necessarily the voice of the Montessori community. The developmental needs of those students in the 1st plane of development are not necessarily the same as those in the 2nd or 3rd plane. Although there is some validity in restricting the use of technology in the primary age, make no mistake that technology has and continues to change the way we perceive our world. Our children are a part of this changing world. They are the natives, and we are the immigrants.

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