Book Review : “The App Generation”, Howard Gardner & Katie Davis

The App Generation : How today’s youth navigate identity, intimacy and imagination in a digital world by Howard Garner & Katie Davis, 2014 (complete with all my bookmarks).

We can always be assured that when we pick up a book by Professor Howard Gardner, we are holding some very carefully considered and powerful ideas in our hands. I am not familiar with the work of Professor Katie Davis however after reading this book, I will certainly following her research in the future.

Visit the book website [here] for a summary & video from the authors. Although not directly mentioned, his book approaches participatory culture and connectivist theory through the lens of “app-dependence” versus “app-enablement”. These ideas are expanded upon by considering three areas of adolescent life: identity, intimacy, and imagination.

From the outset, this book sets a high standard for academic writing. The scope of the subject is clearly defined & methodologies set out in detail. The appendices further expand the transparency of the research behind this work which leads me onto a first general observation. The research draws heavily on the American cultural context which places significant limitations on how far findings can be extrapolated to other cultural & geographical contexts. Don’t get me wrong, the questions asked within the theoretical constructs the authors use to frame their discussion are extremely important & certainly caused me to think deeply about the “App generation” in my context. Suffice it to say that the cultural backgrounds, historical & technological contexts that the students I see everyday at an international school in remote South East Asia could not be more different from the subjects of the studies based in Harvard. There are most definitely commonalities but the temptation to extrapolate the research presented in this book to students outside these studies must be vigorously resisted.  For example, the technological history outlined on page 52 is distinctly western (if not American) & most certainly not paralleled by the vast majority of the world’s population particularly here in Asia. How the students I see each day have come to this technological space is so diverse that we must guard most ardently against assuming we understand their perspective. I would go even further in saying that we can draw little value from describing a “generation” in any way for fear of drawing conclusions based on stereotypes rather than the lived experience of each individual student we encounter. This may sound like I oppose the premise of this book but not so. Instead, we should apply the same inquiring mind that Gardner and Davis have applied in their context to challenge our own assumptions about the “App Generation” present in our classrooms. Their rigorous & deeply reflective approach that seeks to draw information from multiple sources to make sense of a notoriously enigmatic topic such as technology & youth is refreshing in a field such as education which is rife with myths, unchallenged assumptions & scant methodology.

In defining the scope of this book, Gardner & Davis establish a clear distinction between the broad concept of technology as it encompasses technologies that “have been with us for many thousands of years, and … are equally a part of human development” and the specific medium of the app (p15-16). Too often we conflate the term technology with digital technology which draws discussions about technology integration into a focus on the device & apps rather than the role that technology plays more broadly in the learning context [here is a very powerful Tedx talk that exemplifies a far more expansive understanding of technology]. This chapter, “Talk about technology” (p15ff), is well worth a read in & of itself to gain a clarity in the terminology that so often muddies discourse around technology integration. Worth highlighting here too is that “while some of us are inclined to think of these communication media as “mere tools”, they can [in reality] have a transformative effect” (p 21). Technology is not merely a tool, it is fundamentally disruptive and capable of altering people & society. It is on this very point that the book concludes with the question of whether the technology we employ in the education setting & beyond leads to a passive dependency on the app or whether it opens, enables and transforms the learning environment. “As [Marshall] McLuhan saw it, each medium – which he viewed as an extension of human sensory organs – alters the relation of the individual to the surrounding world” (p22). I must admit an awe for the prescience of McLuhan and many other 20th century writers Gardner refers to.

A powerful idea is presented with the example of the experiment where toddlers are presented with a toy that is either presented by an adult demonstrating how to use it or presented by an adult wondering how to use it (p27). The two presentations yielded profoundly different behaviours in the toddlers. Toddlers who observed the demonstration tended to use the toy in the limited way demonstrated while the toddlers who had their curiousity piqued explored the toy in many different ways extending the possibilities afforded by the features of that toy. It is so often tempting as a “sage on the stage” to explain every component of a new technology or medium (such as a new research database) rather than allowing the students to explore & discover the value of the resource for themselves. When I have presented new tools to students in this way, they have frequently demonstrated features of these resources that I was not aware of & subsequently developed a unique way of working with it in the future. Further to this, & this is a point paralleled by the discussions in the book, if an app (or other medium) does not allow for such an open ended exploration then I would seriously question it’s value in the education context. Many apps, for example, simply replicate worksheets or drills, they are often closed & drive a child to compliance rather than inquiry even if the company selling that app expound personalisation features (this is a kind of pseudo-personalisation). I further extrapolate the discussions in the book to conclude that apps that are an end in themselves are in the extreme opposite of apps that open possibilities & options for students to extend & challenge themselves in new ways. For example, (p31) Wikipedia can be used as an endpoint in an inquiry providing an answer to a query that may stifle further investigation or it may become a “point of departure for further research, or even edit an earlier entry in light of the dividends of such research” [further information about editing Wikipedia pages]. Therefore, it is not, in this case, the fault of the medium but the mindset that the medium is approach that defines it as closed & stifling rather than expansive & inspirational.

Gardener & Davis go on to define the framework through which they conducted their research & subsequently frame their discussions. The three topics they outline are:

1. Identity formation.

2. Intimacy in relationships.

3. Imagination.

Identity formation: “You may end up with a stronger and more powerful identity, or you may succumb to a prepackaged identity or to endless role diffusion” (p32)

Intimacy: “Apps may facilitate superficial ties … or they can expose you to a much wider world, provide novel ways of relating to people” (p32).

Imagination: “Apps can make you lazy, discourage the development of new skills, limit you to mimicry or tiny trivial tweaks or tweets – or they can open up whole new worlds for imagining, creating, producing, remixing, even forging new identities and enabling rich forms of intimacy” (p33).

I will leave it up to the inquiring reader to explore the depths of discussion presented within framework of these three ideas for themselves. In regard to “identity”, it is worth highlighting that we need to be very careful of the assumptions of narcissism that may on the surface be present in the “app generation’s” social media presence. If nothing else, Gardner & Davis challenge us to dig deeper than simplistic conclusions based on surface observations. “Whether youth take advantage of these opportunities remains an open question” is both an observation & exhortation to us to keep an open mind when considering the concept of identity formation in the connected world. I conclude from these discussions that whether new media opens up “new opportunities for self-expression” or “result in an impoverished sense of self” is not decided but it is raised as a profound & fundamentally important question for us to inquire into & support our students as best we can (p91). This is a deep reality for our students so to ignore or outlaw this aspect of our students’ lives in the classroom under the pretext of covering our most valuable “content” is doing our students a very deep disservice.

Similarly, developing a more nuanced understanding of the impact on “intimate relationships” of new media is equally as important. Again, the increased connectivity has its value but as in any medium there are also risks. Further, it cannot be assumed that the risks for previous pre-connected generations can be translated directly into new media.

In regard to the “imagination” as defined in this book, the cultural references to American society & youth experience dominate the discussion but important considerations are raised that can be a basis for questioning in wider cultural contexts. For example, many of the students I work alongside bring a deep sensitivity to the poverty & wealth disparities they are confronted with the moment they leave the gates of our school. In this context, creativity is not applied & expressed in a forum such as DeviantArt, rather, a strong social conscience presses students to consider original & creative solutions to very real challenges evident in context of developing economies. The reality of unchecked human trafficking in their immediate community challenges the relevance of a new app or technology. Even so, our students still hold that technology in their hands & it offers both distraction & opportunity for creation, both restrictive compliance & “divergent thinking” (p129). So once again, I found the data & conclusions presented to be of limited relevance but still worth considering.

The final chapter, “Conclusion: Beyond the App generation”, brings the discussions together with such clarity. “To be sure: Even if our description of today’s young people has hit the mark [in the American context], we can never prove that these features are a direct or even a principal consequence of the pervasiveness of technologies of a certain sort. It is simply impossible to carry out the proper experiment with the needed controls” (p162). Yet, this did not dissuade Gardner & Davis from extensive deep inquiry. This is my inspiration from this book, “in the manner of a persuasive lawyer, … the most that we can do is to marshal the relevant arguments, building up the strongest case for the state of affairs that we’ve observed and the likely reasons for its existence” (p162-3). The question for me is whether my practices “call for the kind of constrained curriculum and traditional standard tests that at their best capture skills of a bygone era” or do they favour “the more open-ended skills focus on the enabling qualities of the digital world” (p179). I am further challenged to consider if I am “defending the traditional skills … to mobilize digital media to increase the efficiency and effectiveness  of existing delivery and assessment processes” like lectures, textbooks & preprogrammed scripted educational conversations or am I using it as a point of departure into divergent fields of practice that are far more relevant to students moving into a world that is so vastly different to my own experience. Education seems so devastatingly slow to respond that it is difficult to imagine a new paradigm, a paradigm our students are already operating in but sadly rarely see as relevant to the education setting.

In the constructivist framework, students are already the key agents in their own learning so it is a matter of whether schools are relevant or if students simply learn despite our sluggishness. There is nothing wrong with a quick Google search to answer a burning question however if our students leave school at 18 years of age with that as their primary inquiry skill, we have done them a deep disservice & probably missed the mark altogether.

“Put directly, we are not unduly worried about avenues of precision [such as in discipline specific “content”]: many exist. What we are here urging is that apps [& other media] can and should facilitate the initial romance; present multiple ways of attaining precision; and, in the  end, provide ample opportunities to make novel as well as expected use of what has been learned. This stance should be evident both with respect to constrained educational goals – say, the understanding of multiplication – and with respect to the broadest educational goals – and here is where we draw the line sharply between behaviourist and constructivists – precision should always be the means toward making knowledge one’s own and using it ultimately to raise new questions and build additional knowledge” (p187).

I don’t agree with many of the statements made in this book & generally find it more alarmist than embracing however the statements are a challenge to my own misconceptions & a prompt toward a more open minded approach to new media (& apps). Just the recount of a discussion between Gardner & his 6 year old grandson in the final pages is worth purchasing this book for & prompts the question, how often do we ask our students about the impact of apps & new media on their lives & learning? We need to be careful opening up such discussions with students because we may actually be challenged, uncomfortable & confused by what we find out with the risk of feeling dangerously irrelevant. This is however precisely why we should ask these questions that hopefully hopefully lead us to rethink our practices.

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