Teaching Digital Natives: Bridging the Generation Gap

Teaching Digital Natives: Bridging the Generation Gap

Teaching Digital Natives

At the recent Piano Festival at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music I gave a presentation called ‘Teaching Digital Natives’, in which I discussed the ways in which technology has changed the learning styles of the current generation.

There were 120 piano teachers in the room, of various ages and stages of teaching. We started the session with a game in which everyone had to stand up, and then sit down if the statements I made applied to them. For example, ‘sit down if you have never used a computer’ or ‘sit down if you do not have a Facebook account’.

By the end of the game there were only about 10 people standing , who were then told they were Group 1. The majority of the room had sat down somewhere between ‘sit down if your phone only makes phone calls’ and ‘sit down if you were born before 1980’; I told these people they were all in Group 2. The remaining people were all assigned to Group 3.

It was then time to ‘reveal ‘ to everyone that Group 1, the people who were standing up at the end –are digital natives! They are the people who can fix your phones, retrieve your passwords! They are digital natives because they grew up knowing nothing but a world in which technology is prevalent. They are literally native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet.

Note: The term Digital Native (and digital immigrant) has been around since at least 2001 when it was coined by Mark Prensky (see his articles here and here). His views have been challenged and there is vigorous debate around the topic.

Group 2 are digital immigrants. I explained to Group 2: You have adopted technology into your lives, some more than others, and you find it useful and helpful. However you have a digital immigrant’s ‘accent’ – that is, you sometimes default to doing things in a non-digital way. You might turn to the Internet for information only after you can’t find what you need in books. Have you ever called someone to ask them if they got your email? That’s a very digital immigrant thing to do.

Now – Group 3 –the people who sat down very early on – do not own a mobile phone, don’t use computers, don’t do email. I explained to Group 3: you are not digital immigrants – you are more like digital refugees. You’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into the digital world and you don’t really like it much.

But really, ALL of us are native to technology in some way. We drive cars. We have telephones at home. We have colour televisions with remote controls. We almost don’t count these things as technology anymore, they are so ingrained in our lives. We’re comfortable with them because we grew up with them and have had time to get used to them.

Digital natives have simply grown up with so much more. They see technology not only as an essential part of their lives, but as their friend. Digital natives rely on technology to study, work, play, relax and communicate.

As teachers we must recognise that we really are different from our students, both in our cognitive processes and in our expectations of the environment in which we are learning or teaching.

Here are five areas in which this difference becomes evident but in which we can embrace the differences and adjust our teaching to make the most of them.


Digital natives are comfortable doing more than one thing at once, and in fact sometimes need to be doing more than one thing at once in order to be productive. This generation is used to listening to music, talking on Instant Messenger and writing an essay all at the same time. As a mother I still struggle with this and am constantly exclaiming ‘there’s no possible way you can be concentrating’.

Research shows that due to being exposed to programs like MTV, which move at more than 100 images per minute, their brains process things faster, and in fact they have a ‘need for speed’.

Digital natives can randomly switch activities, there is no need for logical sequencing. They can have many screens open at once and easily switch between all of them, without losing their train of thought for any one thing.

They can learn easily on a screen. I don’t know about you but I find if I really want to take something in I need to print it out to read it or edit it. Digital natives don’t need to do that. They don’t need a pen and paper to be able to learn. This is really different from our experience and it’s a matter of acknowledging that their cognitive processes are different.

We can take full advantage of this multi-tasking ability by encouraging our students to do more sight reading. Sight reading is the perfect example of a multitasking activity, and ploughing through repertoire by sight reading short pieces appeals to digital natives because it is a short-lived task that requires high concentration.

We should also be suggesting that they listen to their repertoire pieces while they’re working!

Active vs Passive

Here we’re talking about active learning styles vs passive learning styles. An example of active learning is a brainstorming session, in which there are several people all participating and contributing. An example of passive learning is a lecture, in which there is a presenter out the front and everyone else listening and taking notes.

Digital natives learn much better through active learning; by doing rather than learning through instructions.

For example, imagine you have just purchased a new copy of Sibelius for your music notation. If you are a digital immigrant you’re likely to read the manual cover to cover before installing it, just to make sure you’re doing everything right. If you’re a digital native you are far more likely to simply install the software and learn as you go. Most digital natives do not bother at all with instruction manuals – it just doesn’t suit their learning style.

Some universities are responding to this lowered tolerance for passive situations by moving away from the standard lecture format. Classrooms in primary schools are being restructured to encourage open and active learning. As piano teachers we also need to acknowledge that we may need to make some changes to the piano lesson format as we know it, because it can tend to be a very passive learning situation i.e. the student plays for the teacher everything they’ve practised that week, and the teacher listens and responds.

Improvisation is an excellent way to ‘branch out’ of the standard piano lesson format. Students love playing duets in which they improvise black note melodies while the teacher plays a simple F sharp major accompaniment pattern (this also works with a 12-bar blues accompaniment in Eb major). Moving on to the floor to analyse music or clap a phrase is a great excuse for getting some movement into the lesson.

Since this generation is also far more stimulated by graphics than by text, we should use Youtube as a teaching tool wherever possible. Encourage your students to find recordings of the pieces they are playing and find a favourite interpretation. They can also source their own sheet music cheaply and easily, and can find out vast quantities of information in an instant about composers and pieces.

Encouraging digital natives to be active means to encourage them to find things out for themselves. It’s our job to mentor and guide them in these situations, rather than be the provider of all of the information.


The fact that the word ‘gamification’ even exists shows how much it is a part of our lives now. It basically means to make something – anything – into a game. I’ve given lots of workshops in the past where I’ve talked about how to make something into a game, and although I have never referred to this as gamification, it’s really the same as technology’s approach. It’s a recognition that children learn better and more quickly through games.

Digital natives most certainly learn best through games, and they are exposed to it almost from babyhood. My 15-month-old nephew can operate an ipad with ease. I’m sure many of you have seen tiny toddlers doing the same. Even before hand-held devices, computers still taught things to little people really well using games. When my now 16 year old son was 3, long before he learned to read, he could easily recognise and understand the words: Start-programs-accessories-games.

There is a growing acknowledgement that gaming is the way this generation learns to problem-solve. Game format has been adopted by the army for training soldiers. Xbox Kinect is being used for rehabilitation in hospitals, because the repetitive actions required in physical rehabilitation can be transformed into a game on a screen. Gamification is now employed by many different organisations as a learning tool, rather than for recreational use.

So perhaps we shouldn’t frown on how much the ‘young people of today’ play games. Whilst it’s true that they can end up spending too much time on it, at the expense of study and practice, and so they need to be monitored, there are certain ‘real life’ skills that are being learned. When you strive to get to the next level in a game, it’s because you want that achievement, you want to make progress, you want to beat your competitors. That’s pretty much what happens in the work force, or in any kind of pursuit in life.

This is very relevant to us as music teachers. Ironically, music study (in Australia in particular) is already gamified by the fact that there are grades to complete, and exams to do. Despite all of the pushing we see from parents, there is definitely an appeal for kids to want to get to the next level. But in terms of music exams, the transition between levels is just too great for digital natives. They need to ‘level up’ much more quickly than once a year. Their currency is different, and so they can become bored and unmotivated much more quickly.

This leads me to my next point…

Payoff vs. Patience

I think we are all very well aware that this is the generation needing instant gratification, and it’s no wonder, because they’ve grown up with it.

Digital natives have been born into a world of everything being instantly accessible. It’s true that they not only need more frequent rewards, there must be an appropriate relationship between effort and reward. This in itself will be different for every child, not only in terms of how much effort they are prepared to put in before they get a reward, but also what the reward should be.

As much as we might baulk at it, research shows that children will work harder and do better if they are rewarded for their efforts. When it comes to learning and playing a musical instrument, children don’t get intrinsic reward from this (although adults do). They need extrinsic reward and they need to be incentivised. It’s a matter of working out each child’s currency. And with digital natives, we must acknowledge that they will work better with shorter goals and more frequent rewards.

Encouraging students to learn many shorter pieces in a term rather than 1 or 2 long pieces enables them to have more rewards more frequently, because they enjoy the fact that they’ve achieved something quickly. It also aids sight reading and exposes them to a broad range of repertoire.

The flip side of this is that students do need to persevere in order to play more difficult pieces. Digital natives are very capable of persevering when they want to. For example, I’ve watched my kids play video games where they have to make exactly the right moves for at least 4 or 5 minutes in a row, and if they make a tiny mistake they get taken back to the beginning of the level to try again.

The point here is that they really want to achieve that level, so they keep going.

Perhaps as teachers we need to break down those longer pieces and for example offer rewards for learning sections of a piece, rather than the whole thing. A reward can be anything from words of praise to stickers to ticks on a chart to trophies to confectionery! If we find their currency and work out which rewards motivate our students, they WILL persevere. In this ‘instant gratification’ generation, this is probably our greatest challenge as teachers.

Friend vs Foe

Technology is a digital native’s friend, one that they’ve grown up with. To a digital immigrant, technology is not necessarily a foe but it certainly more of a colleague or a recent acquaintance, rather than a friend. Computers and devices may aid our work and improve our lifestyle when we want them to, but we don’t use these things for relaxation and play to the extent that digital natives do.

What can we do if we don’t want to embrace technology ourselves? We can embrace the fact that our students will get more out of learning when THEY embrace technology, which means that as teachers we need to encourage our students to use technology where it is appropriate.

In conclusion, we can remember three important points:

· Digital natives process information differently from previous generations

· As teachers we must encourage the use of technology where appropriate

· Technology will never replace teachers but it will change the way we teach

If we can remember these things we will be more successful as teachers and we will certainly have happier and more successful students.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

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