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The App Generation: New Book About Kids These Days

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Kids these days...

It's hard to avoid this stem of a thought in writing about education, learning, and young people, from the "digital natives vs. digital immigrants" debate, to calls for better civics and character education, to conversations about competitiveness and readiness of all kinds. In a new book, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the University of Washington Information School respectively, take a shot at a definitive portrait of what, exactly, is going on with kids these days.

The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, forthcoming from Yale University Press, is a thought-provoking compendium of research findings that captures, perhaps unwittingly, just how perplexing Boomers and Gen X-ers find so-called Millennials. In distinguishing today's youth from their forebears, however, Gardner and Davis omit several opportunities to contextualize their behaviors.

Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor of cognition and education and senior director of Harvard Project Zero, is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, first articulated in book form in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Basic Books, 1983). He elaborated upon his ideas in both Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice (Basic Books, 1993) and Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (Basic Books, 1999), as well as in other titles. More recently, Gardner's writing has focused on examining "goodness" through lenses like morality and the quality of life and work. (His book Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed (Basic Books, 2011) synthesizes these latter areas of research, many developed through The Good Project, another Harvard program affiliated with both the Graduate School of Education and Project Zero). Gardner's coauthor, Katie Davis, is formerly a member of Project Zero and currently an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School. There she is the principal investigator on a project researching digital badges in K-12 education and their impact on student motivation and engagement.

As Gardner and Davis write in the introduction to The App Generation, the premise for the book grew from the confluence of several research interests: "how the new digital media [are] affecting the ethical compass of young users" and "the ways in which young people's thought processes, personalities, imaginations, and behaviors might be affected and perhaps radically transformed by their involvement with these media." They have used reviews of relevant (though wide-ranging) research literature along with their own studies and term-setting to build a composite portrait of "middle-class and upper-middle class youth living in an affluent, developed society."

The authors interviewed about 150 teenagers and young adults in New England, a smaller group of eighth-to-twelfth-graders in Bermuda, twenty girls active in the LiveJournal blogging community, forty high school teachers, and seven focus groups of adults experienced in working with children and youth. The focus groups were organized by profession or area of interest. Gardner and Davis assert that the resulting portrait reflects the experience of youth "in all sectors of society," but as a result of their approach, any conclusions about low-income students are based in large part on the testimony of adults who work with those students, rather than the students themselves.

The App Generation begins by laying out definitions for some key terms and concepts, before diving into research new and old to build a fuller picture of a population. Because definitions are central to the book's structure, today's post will focus on the concepts guiding Gardner's and Davis' argument. Tomorrow, I'll discuss specific topics of interest to the authors, namely identity, personal relationships, and creativity as enacted by "digital youth."

Unfortunately, Gardner and Davis do not offer clear and convincing definitions for either "app" or "generation." Their broad definition of "app" as "a procedure, enabled by technology, that allows the user to carry out one or more operations" sits awkwardly with the subsequent use of "app" as a stand-in for diverse technologies, social media, and digital things throughout the rest of the book.

To frame their discussion, Gardner and Davis offer "four spheres to keep in mind." Each "sphere" is a different filter or approach to understanding kids' social interactions and creativity, although most overlap significantly and the authors note that all four are inseparable. They write:

  • Tools and machines: technology in the traditional sense (ax, steam engine), typically built out of wood, metal, plastic, or other available materials.
  • Information that can be transmitted via our own bodies or by manmade technologies of various sorts (news, entertainment, maps, encyclopedia entries);
  • Information transmitted by a particular machine or tool (the television set that conveys local or international news constitutes a medium of communication; so, too, the geographical information presented on a Google or Yahoo! map)--in referring to these instances, we will use the terms medium and its plural, media; and
  • Human psychology (sensing, attending, categorizing, deciding, acting, other processes of the mind)

Perhaps the term "app" represents the embodiment of - or bridge between - all four spheres, in the authors' minds. However, by blurring boundaries between the concepts, the authors reduce the utility of establishing them as terms in the first place.

Having introduced the four spheres, the book and the research behind it examine three intersections between them: Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination. Again, divisions between the categories blur as each of the three intersections depends heavily on the other two. Identity, explored here through studies of how youth self-present on Facebook and other social media, involves a kind of public performance that the authors call "The Packaged Self," which in turn affects the intimate relationships forged, documented, and controlled through those same channels. Imagination, the authors' term for writing, art-making, and other creative expression, applies just as much to how youth perceive themselves and their relationships, and how they forecast their own futures.

The Three I's - the authors' shorthand for these intersections - offer the strongest set of definitions in the book, to the extent that one wonders at the need to attribute their qualities and existence to technology. An argument can certainly be made that technology is an integral element of contemporary middle-class youths' experiences. But demonstrating a more nuanced understanding of the myriad technologies we use today would have been useful to Gardner and Davis in making this case.

The authors also have more success with secondary definitions that begin to illustrate the idea of an app or apps by describing what they do and how, for example when they write: "Apps that allow or encourage us to pursue new possibilities are app-enabling. In contrast, when we allow apps to restrict or determine our procedures, choices, and goals, we become app-dependent." One theme revisited throughout the book is the notion that youth today see their lives as a "single, extended, cradle-to-grave app," which the authors term a "super-app." Gardner and Davis suggest that teenagers and young people may even aspire to the "super-app," the paramount manifestation of "app-dependency." Ultimately they argue that the essence of apps is not what they are - or how, exactly, they function - but how they influence the behavior of those who use them.

Studying the impact of apps on a generation ostensibly defined or even created by them can seem circular: What defines today's youth? Apps. What's an app? It's what defines today's youth. Many of Gardner's and Davis' observations ring true and invite further inquiry, but readers must make some major assumptions for the book to hang together.

In my next post, I'll take a closer look at the authors' findings about the "App Generation," including the role technology may play in personal relationships and creativity.

Cover image courtesy of Yale University Press.

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