Friday, February 22, 2008

How different are kids today?

I’m writing this blog on the flight back from FETC, the Florida Educational Technology Conference. My visit was very brief. I flew down, cruised the exhibit floor, did a session, and flew back. In that day, though, I did feel a much higher energy level than I expected to find. With all the dire news about the economy and ongoing grumblings about NCLB, I anticipated a somewhat depressed sensibility among the conference attendees. Not so, at least around the Tom Snyder Productions booth. It was constantly crowded and full of enthusiasm. Participants were excited, curious, and scrambling to learn more about lots of products. It felt good. But that’s not what this blog is about.

Several of the sessions I breezed in and out of and a number of the informal conversations I had reflected the underlying assumption that today’s kids are different. And I often wonder what that really means. Certainly 21st century children are using tools and interacting with each other in ways that are completely alien to old folks (like yours truly). I can’t imagine as a teenager being willing to share my personal history and preferences for the world to see like my son does on Facebook. I remember in graduate school scoffing at the notion of computers and the Internet threatening the existence of libraries. How could you do research without wandering the stacks and feeling the heft and integrity of the books that contained the knowledge. Wow. What a drag it is now when a journal article isn’t online, and I actually have to open a book. Many kids never had that kind of old-fashioned library experience.

My son and graduate students text each other without a thought and flit from one computer to the next without a care. Their work and identities travel with them or wait patiently in the ether until accessed from whatever machine is at hand. I just didn’t grow up that way. I’ve had to relearn how to do some things, and the pieces of this emerging world that I have embraced don’t look the same as those growing up in it initially. (My son thinks it’s just wrong for me to be on Facebook.) So, yes, it’s clear that today’s kids look and behave in new ways; but didn’t I look strange to my parents?

My parents couldn’t understand how I could spend so much time on the phone. How could I do homework while watching TV? And that music on the stereo…. Yes, every generation is different from the preceding one, but isn’t the pace of technology outpacing our ability to keep up? These 21st century kids REALLY are different. I wonder.

I had a brief conversation with a year ago with the recently deceased Peter Lyman, a cultural anthropologist from Berkeley who had been studying digital youth culture. He gave me some sense that underneath the surface today’s kids are a lot like yesterday’s. They still value status and being part of a group. They still feel anxieties about who they are and will become. The venues for exploring those feelings have dramatically changed, but maybe the core remains familiar. Maybe. It's a good question. I’ll keep looking for the answer.

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