Steiny: Most Kids Way Ahead of Us as Digital Learners, for Better and Worse

An Associated Press piece about the 14 million Americans who’ve been searching vainly for jobs profiled Jon, a warehouse worker unemployed since 2008. Apparently employers even in that seemingly-low-tech field want people with computer skills. Now 55 and a non-techie, Jon laments that employers should offer people like him training in those skills. But in this buyer’s market, why would they?

Julia Steiny

A lot of plucky 20-year-olds would just say: sure, I can do inventory software. They would surf the net, learn what they could, and show up day one asking how this particular company’s system works. They are born-and-raised digital learners. They have confidence where Jon does not.

Herein lies the new “digital divide.”

The old divide was between the haves and the have-nots. Computer access was a luxury of well-heeled families and school systems. Now, most kids at least carry a cell phone with text capabilities. The new divide is between those at home in cyberspace and those who struggle with e-mail.

This divide separates adults from kids.

Education-tech expert Angela Maiers makes this distinction: “The 21st century will not be defined by the volume or speed at which you consume information. (That was the old way of being smart.) It will be defined by how well you curate that information, translate it and contribute information back in a way that your community can understand it. Teaching students to be competent curators is our main responsibility as educators.”

Huh! That’s different.

Traditional teaching trains kids to consume information so they can regurgitate it correctly, mainly on tests. This is the old banking theory of education: teachers deposit knowledge in kids’ heads.

But tech-savvy people are in the habit of acquiring content and skills in all sorts of ways. Even if they’re learning how to rip off movies and music, kids learn most of their digital skills independently. And that independence is giving them overweaning confidence in their own powers. This is like kids knowing how to rope cattle, ride horses and set up camp away from home, while the adults are just catching on. The adults aren’t WITH them out in the e-Wild West.

Maiers says, “Digital learning is changing what it means to be a reader, writer, publisher, editor. The essence of learning is still literacy. We still teach kids to read for understanding, to write with clarity, to pull the big ideas out and to rally others around important ideas. But e-books allow you to highlight, comment, take notes, research the content, and share all that with others. So literacy is changing from linear and solo to dynamic and immersive.” (Meaning “shared”)

So teachers need to cohabit the cyber world to guide this new literacy. The key will be harnessing kids’ innate passion for freedom and self-direction.

For example: Maiers is a Twitter buddy with Mrs. Krebs, a 7th-grade teacher. One of Maier’s tweets got Krebs so excited about Daniel Pink’s idea of “genius time,” she set aside time for her students to work on a problem of their own choosing. Maiers and Krebs created lists of questions to stimulate the kids’ thinking. ( In short, what would they like to make better, and how? Long before they finish a Ph.D. or M.D., go solve a big problem. Just head into it, kids, and see if you can make a contribution.

Cyberspace allows kids to practice doing adult work – to save the environment, investigate corruption, contribute to their communities. Krebs will be on hand to guide them, to steer them from unreliable sites, from using rude language, from unbalanced sources and thinking. Inevitably she’ll point some students to the math, science or whatever they might need to get serious about pursuing their project.

Maiers notes, “The best teacher is always experience. You can see (a skill) modeled or explained. But if you’re not playing the game, you’re not learning. At school, we’re not building students’ competence or confidence for their jobs in the future. When you train for sports, you train for agility, flexibility and precision. Precision is kicking the ball through the goal posts. The way you learn precision is by practicing it over and over again. But the champion is the one who knows WHEN to make that kick, when to move, to pause to shut down, to go forward.”

Students need guidance applying their skills, digital and otherwise, in the realish cyber world.

“If you want the kids to pay attention, give their attention something worthy of it. We ask kids to do the stupidest things. We need to think about what they could be doing with their genius. Because if you don’t secure their hearts, you don’t have a shot at their brains.”

I’m totally with that on so many fronts.

Finally, Maiers cautions, “Everyone has to learn how to enter the ocean, because a wrong move can drown you. The second you stop honoring the force of the ocean, you’re in danger.”

The e-Wild West can be very dangerous. Kids get addicted to games, meet strangers online, and bully with lethal weapons.

Digital learning is a force to be dealt with. We’re only just starting. Adults need to get out there WITH them.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny