The shift in thinking patterns of digital kids

In addition to the four implications discussed in my post on a foundation for 21st century schooling, I wanted to highlight a fifth, significant implication for the classroom that Kelly, McCain and Jukes (2009) associate with the reality of the online digital world and its relationship to schooling. Simply put, there is emerging evidence that today’s kids are thinking differently than their teachers. As a result, schools need to address the shift in thinking patterns of digital kids. This is, indeed, a novel observation that I had not considered before.

Kelly et al. discuss the theory of neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to modify the organization of its neural pathways, thereby effectively rewiring itself in response to new demands placed upon it by the external environment. Neuroscientists suggest that such brain plasticity underlies the brain’s ability to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize how it processes information based on new input. If the brain encounters a new kind of input for sustained periods of time on a daily basis for an extended period of time, it will reorganize neural pathways to handle the new input more effectively. This is what happens when a child learns to read. With sustained exposure to textual input on a daily basis, the child’s brain reorganizes how the brain processes this new input so the brain can make sense of it.

In the same way, kids growing up in a digital world are being exposed to new kinds of input from digital experiences for sustained periods of time on a daily basis. Consequently, their brains are reorganized to handle the digital environment more effectively. This is creating a huge problem in our schools. Kids are quite literally thinking differently than those who teach them. (p. 23)

As a result of growing up in an increasingly digital world, it appears that the neuroplasticity of the brain has impacted student learning preferences. Kelly et al. suggest that the digital generation prefers:

  • receiving information quickly from multiple multimedia sources
  • parallel processing of content and multitasking
  • active, engaged learning
  • processing pictures, sounds and video before text
  • random access to hyperlinked multimedia information
  • networking simultaneously with many others (p. 23-24)

These learning preferences are more often than not in direct contrast to teachers who have learned, and therefore tend to teach, differently. They prefer slow and controlled release of information from limited sources, favor passive learning models such as lectures, choose to provide new information linearly, logically and sequentially, and ask students to work independently before they interact in groups.

Kelly et al. highlight the following implications for quality teaching and learning to reach the digital generation:

  1. Classroom instruction must shift from a predominantly lecture format to one that focuses more on discovery learning. Students should be provided with hands-on learning activities that allow them to master the digital tools for learning.
  2. Teachers must make a shift from the text-based instructional tools to include pictures, video and sound as appropriate media to convey information.
  3. Teachers must provide students with more access to hyperlinked information that can be navigated randomly. This ‘random access’ approach to navigating information in the World Wide Web is a mode of learning that students are already used to. Guided opportunities to develop these skills further are essential.
  4. Teachers must allow students to network and collaborate with each other and with experts from around the world on an ad hoc basis. (p. 24-25)

Without a doubt, these implications will impact teacher preparation substantially. Today’s students are developing skills from using new technologies that should be incorporated into the classroom. It is imperative for schools to provide the necessary professional development and appropriate collaborative planning time to help them succeed. Unfortunately, it appears that far too many of today’s teachers focus, instead, on of the skills that the students do not have because of the technologies.


Kelly, F. S., McCain, T., & Jukes, I. (2009). Teaching the digital generation: No more cookie-cutter high schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Wesson, K. (2010). Neuroplasticity: Experience and your brain. Retrieved from on Feb. 1, 2011.