Kids These Days: A Window to Tomorrow

September 7, 2009

computerchildForecasting the future conjures up images of peering into a crystal ball. Or, perhaps, Conan O’Brien’s “In the Year 3000” sketches. And sometimes carefully considered research isn’t any more reliable. Indeed, from time to time, the innovators themselves get it comically wrong. Western Union’s president said the “telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” Thomas Edison said “the phonograph has no commercial value at all.”

As bright minds squint to try to bring the future into focus, they often overlook that the future, in a way, is just down the street. The attitudes that will shape that mysterious future are on display every day at the neighborhood elementary school.

A classmate of mine recently joked that today’s children are born knowing how to use a computer. They nearly are. Early this decade, more than two-thirds of preschoolers were using computers, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report. The proportion is likely even greater now.

A fifth-grader I mentored last school year already had his own e-mail address and YouTube account. So did many of his classmates. Technologically, his generation is light years ahead of where mine was at that age. And that’s what tends to get the attention. “Kids and their gadgets these days,” one adult might remark to another. 

Less appreciated, however, is the communication literacy this engenders. From the earliest age, children are consumers — and, increasingly, creators — of media. They do not know the definition of online communities theory or uses and gratifications theory, but they are applying each. By the time they reach high school, they have a more sophisticated relationship with media than adults probably give them credit for.

A few of my peers, one of whom is studying the use of interactive gaming as a learning tool, will meet some of these young minds over the course of their research. Anyone interested in the future, however, owes it to himself to visit a classroom. Today’s students can be great teachers.

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