The Digital Native Myth: Why we still need to teach kids HOW to use the iPad

Every now and then an article will come out or someone will tweet about students being ‘digital natives’. The assumption is, of course, that students have been brought up with technology and know how to use it, and use it well. Ignoring the socio-economic fallacies of the argument, it is still false to assume students know how to use technology well.

When I first start a year in a 1:1 classroom I like to set students a task that they can complete in any way they wish. It is a good way to see what the students’ go-to apps are, and how creative they can be with their answers. I can count on one hand the number of students who do anything new, creative or exceptional without prompting.

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Josie Holford via Compfight

Most students go straight to Word or Pages. A few more use Powerpoint or Keynote. The occasional student will use PicCollage or iMovie, but generally will use it to create work that mimics word processing or poster creation. Despite being brought up with technology, they are still using it in old-fashioned, boring ways. They are not using it to extend their learning, or think more deeply, despite of (or perhaps because of) their ability to use technology.

Students need to be taught how to use the iPad. They need to be taught how they can use it to create amazing things, to share their learning and connect it with the real word, to deepen their thinking. This can be done in a number of ways:

Give students high-quality examples.

Show students what other people around the world have created on their iPads. Most have never thought of the iPad beyond Pages or Angry Birds because they have seen no other way. Show them the possibilities.

Give students the thinking tools they need.

The iPad alone will not help students think deeply. Give them the DATT, DeBono’s thinking hats, the Socrative method. Give them graphic organisers and questioning tools. Then give them the opportunity to use these tools alongside their iPad.

Teach them how to learn socially, and share.

Many students use social media, but don’t necessarily use it to learn or to connect in meaningful ways. Blogs, Twitter, Edmodo, Google Drive…all of these tools work on iPads and can be used to allow students to learn off each other and to share their learning with the world. These tools allow them to take REAL action in the REAL world. Show them how to use them well. Again, give them examples of students who are doing amazing things.

Introduce them to new apps.

The best 1:1 iPad teachers explore the app store themselves, and don’t just rely on students to show them new, exciting apps. Find apps that allow students to do things in new ways, to think in new ways. Introduce them to your class, and to the school. Students need practice using a range of apps, not just become experts with a few. Show them that you are constantly learning too, and that new tools mean new possibilities.

With guidance, students will become more adept at using the iPad (or other 1:1 devices) in innovative ways, allowing their thinking and learning to constantly improve, instead of resorting to old thinking in new ways.

Rebecca Davies


  1. Good observations. I do agree that we have digital natives but like most their skills are limited. To generalise young students use tech for fun and communicating with their peers but it is easy to take them out of their comfort zone. As you have noted they do some things well but you will be constantly surprised by what they are not good at e.g administration, organisation.
    Anyhow, tech is progressing so quickly it is hard for anybody to keep up. 🙂

    • Hi Simon,
      I agree that they do seem to struggle with organisation on the iPads in particular. I’ll be trialling eLockers with my class shortly – I’m hoping that will help with them forgetting which app they used for a particular piece of work!


  2. This is a wonderful post! When teaching grades 2-8, I often had to explain to parents and administrators that while digital natives are extremely comfortable with technology, that does not imply that they know how to USE technology in order to create, communicate, collaborate, or construct new knowledge. The examples that you provide for how to better direct students makes the argument so much more tangible.

    • Hi Beth,
      Thank you for your comment. I love hearing about other schools and teachers facing the same issues when introducing technology. Unfortunately, the digital native myth really just leads to complacency on the part of many teachers and parents as, like you said, they just assume students know how to use it well so do not bother teaching them about it. Hopefully as more schools begin to implement technology, though, the myth will begin to fade.


  3. I feel the same way Rebecca. My students tend to go to iMovie as this is what they have been exposed too. So it is our role as educators to teach them the skills, broaden their repertoire and provide them with innovative teaching that develops, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and connection to the world.

  4. Hi Bec,
    Great blog post. I agree that the common perceptions you have described are having an impact out there in schools. From my experience engaging with a number of schools I have even seen how these assumptions have contributed to school’s lack of technological investment in the first place, claiming that all students are engrained with these skills. It’s also true that socioeconomic factors will grow a large digital divide which will be increasingly damaging as the effective utilization of tech becomes increasingly expected and valued by employers.

    Well done on the ongoing sharing and critical thinking.

    • Hi Leigh,
      Thanks for your comment! I absolutely agree with you about socioeconomic facts impacting students future job opportunities. I work in a low SES school and can see how differently my students use technology to my students last year, in a middle SES school. Hopefully by explicitly teaching the effective use of technology we can begin to bridge that gap.


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