“To understand is hard. Once one understands, action is easy.”

Be honest.

The last time you were in line at the grocery store, in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, or in an elevator, did you engage in casual conversation with the strangers around you?

I’m willing to bet the answer is no.

In fact, I’m guessing you were on your cell phone (check out Pew Research Center’s Generations and their Gadegts to see where you rank in terms of technology ownership).

Perhaps you were checking your email, sending a text, or chiming in on your Twitter chat of choice. Bottom line; odds are you were not engaged in a stimulating conversation with the people around you. If this is how we as adults are behaving in society, how are we then entitled to say that those “kids of today” just don’t know how to communicate? Do we model in our daily lives the way we want and expect our students to conduct themselves as members of a globally-connected digital society?

I’ve been hearing more and more adults, both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, say because of technology, kids today are unable to hold (and even less able to start) an intelligent, interesting and meaningful face to face conversation with another person. I’ve been reading blog posts lately that criticize a student’s ability to effectively communicate and again, technology is to blame. There is a segment of digital immigrants who believe that todays’s digital natives don’t possess the self-management skills to know when it’s appropriate to put down their device in order to listen, participate, and collaborate with others “live and in person.”

I disagree wholeheartedly with this assertion and witness the contrary daily in my classroom and even more so this past week in a professional setting. The 2013 Pew Research Center report on Smartphones and Teens states, “Teens are fervent communicators” and they use a variety of tools to communicate with the people, both peers and adults, who matter to them the most.

fortune cookie

My fortune the day before leaving for California!

It’s important to understand that our current generation of learners didn’t have to assimilate into a digital world, rather they were born into a digital world. As educators, we have to learn how to relate to our students in the world they were born into, not the world we have seen evolve over time. The more time we spend with digital natives, the more we will learn and understand their world and how to make their learning environment and experiences relevant.

I spent my entire April vacation with 17 students at the DECA International Career Development Conference (ICDC) in Anaheim, California. DECA is an International Association of Marketing Students designed to prepare students for careers in business, marketing, management, hospitality, and finance. The co-curricular organization allows students to apply the competencies they learn in the classroom to extended learning opportunities in the form of competitive conferences at the state, region, and international levels.

The authentic learning opportunities provided through DECA, and many other types of co-curricular organizations, bring relevance to what a student learns in the classroom and allow students to explore possible college and career paths. DECA experiences also promote the development of the 4 C’s, and in particular communication.

Last week, I observed students with diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds from all over the country connecting and conversing with one another. I saw students initiate conversations in a variety of places; waiting for an elevator in the hotel, on a shuttle heading to the convention center, within their leadership training seminars, and even while waiting to compete against one another.

Students learned about where their “DECA colleagues” were from, what they had to go through in terms of competing to earn a spot at the ICDC, and what they had planned for recreation activities for the week (Disneyland is always a hot topic of conversation among competitors!)

The point here is that students do communicate and they want to communicate.

Not once did I see students buried in their cell phones disengaged from what was going on around them. In fact, what I heard and observed was students fully engaged in conversations. At the Disney parks, students had to wait in line for rides for sometimes over an hour and during that time, they would end up establishing new connections with their peers. In total, my students met fellow DECA members from 30 states, Canada, and Guam. These observations run parallel to the March 2012 study, Social Media and Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives conducted for Common Sense Media by Knowledge Networks. The survey reports students prefer talking in person over texting and that “moments only happen in person.” Turns out that many digtial natives do have a desire to “power down” and “disconnect.” Additionally, they are aware of the role technology plays in their lives, and seek to balance virutal connections with real-life interactions.

During the DECA trip, not only did my students gain experience communicating with other high school students, they also had the opportunity to communicate with the top-level business and marketing executives who served as the judges for their competitive events. Presenting in front of a CEO certainly added an element of pressure, however the hours of practice and preparation that students had invested in allowed them to overcome this additional level of stress. Students performed to their fullest potential and walked away from their competition feeling a strong sense of pride and accomplishment. However, the added benefit of this experience for students was learning how to fail. I believe this is where the most learning occurred. Whether my students realize it now, or not until after they graduate and start reflecting on their high school experiences, I believe they will realize the significant lessons learned from failing. Despite the countless hours of preparation, and winning at the state level, students who did not move into the finals at the national level still learned valuable lessons from the experience; including time management, organization, planning, teamwork, and networking skills.

As I stated at the start of this post, the most obvious skill students were able to hone throughout the conference was communication. Students were eager and willing to talk with their peers and the kinds of interactions I saw give me confidence that our future will be in good hands, especially if schools continue to promote and offer real-life learning opportunities such as DECA. So let’s try to remember…

Our students have a lot to say to each other and to us.

It’s time we start listening.

If you are intrigued and inspired by digital natives, want to understand them better, and are looking for a few books to read this summer, take a look at the following resources:

Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser.

Tuned Out: Engaging the 21st Century Learner by Karen Hume.



  • Hi Jenn,
    In the absence of stories to the contrary, it’s all too easy for people to extrapolate from a small number of cases and conclude that our students lack the basic face-to-face communication skills needed for success. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about a situation where that clearly wasn’t the case. Thank you for helping to change and deepen the conversation about our digital learners.
    Karen Hume

    • Hi Karen,

      I am incredibly honored that you took the time to read and comment on my blog post! I am truly inspired by digital natives! They are a unique and talented generation and when motivated I’ve seen them create amazing work. They have so much to say and offer to the world. I’m just trying to do what I can to advocate for them and their future. Spreading awareness about your book is one way to do that!

      Thank you again!


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