How To Be Better at Global and Digital Citizenship

Many of us who are active in social media have, over the last few years, watched with increasing unease as the discussions online have become more and more tribal. Political conversations especially seem to find themselves happening among people who are in heated agreement with each other as they share their opinions in echo-chambers. The recent election cycle is just one demonstration — as observed by many people, more astute than me (e.g. here and here) — that instead of fostering conversations where diversity and inquiry reign, social media seems to have isolated us into pockets of groupthink.

Recently, friend and colleague Peter Pappas and I have been developing a sense of guilt about our role in pushing social media. We, and many others (if you’re reading this, you are likely one of us), believed that social media could democratize our culture, empower marginalized voices, ensure a more nuanced reporting of news, and improve democratic life. We reasoned that when “everyone had a printing press or a television camera” to publish with, communities would hear more voices and become better places for everyone.

It has not turned out that way.

Since 2014 or so, it’s been clear to us that the promise of social media has not been realized, or at least it has not been realized as a vehicle for improving democratic culture. In fact, the opposite has happened. We are in a time when all sides are shouting past each other, when they should be listening. For so-called connected educators, while we have been singing the praises of intersection of teaching, technology and new social media – the same system has been used to upend civil discourse, politics and culture. Peter and I gave a workshop at the OTEN conference in Pacific Grove, Oregon in early February, in which we tried to crowdsource some ways to teach students how to understand what has happened, and what they can do to be good citizens, digital or otherwise.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a good deal about how the private-independent school sector, in which I work, can foster truly democratic cultures on campus and develop young people who seek out and have meaningful conversations with those who think differently. Ideological diversity is essential for teaching critical thinking, and going to school with people of different political points of view prepares students to live and prosper in a multicultural society.

This morning I gave a keynote address at the OESIS conference in Los Angeles (slide deck at the end of this post), in which I confessed my transgressions for (perhaps) pushing social media as a democratizing agent a little too hard. Meanwhile I shared a few ideas about how I’m trying to address global and digital citizenship at my school.

1. We have to keep telling students to engage with other people online. Yes, it is difficult and fraught with peril for educators, but if we don’t teach them they’ll move into that space without any preparation at all. Remember, our job is to educate students for the world they will live in, not to educate them in ways that make us educators comfortable.

2. Schools have to promote ideological diversity. In admissions and hiring, we need to think about the need to build a community that helps us all think in different ways about our society. Allowing students to go into the world thinking the “other side” is just too dumb to see things the right way is a terrible educational result. Two years ago, many of my liberal students had what they said was their “peak educational experience” engaging with a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in one of our class projects. He didn’t change any students minds — that’s wasn’t his goal, or the reason to have the conversation — but the students came away understanding he wasn’t just a “crazy guy” lacking logic, or worse, compassion.

3. My school has a strong liberal dominance within the faculty and student body, probably around 85% to 15%. Conservative students have often told me they have to be “in the closet” and don’t feel safe talking out loud about politics at school. So recently, a brave junior and I co-founded the Conservative Affinity Group at my school. We have a group of 20 students who meet once a month and are beginning to find the courage to speak and listen more with the rest of the students.

4. As part of a Project-based Learning unit on citizenship, my 11th and 12th grade Government, Politics, and Citizenship class designed a curriculum for “Civil Discourse” at school. The goal was to teach the entire 9th-12th student body how to talk about politics in a way that promotes listening instead of shouting, and understanding instead of condemnation. My students implemented the curriculum in an extended 60 minute Advisory block in late January, and have become leaders for difficult conversations and open dialogue on campus.

None of this is easy, but educating for democratic participation is what our schools are called to do.

PBL, Real-World situations, and Reflection using ePortfolios

When I think about the best learning experiences I’ve ever had, I find that they share several important elements, including:

1. They were based on a problem that seemed important to my life outside of academia. That’s not to say these learning experiences didn’t have relevance to school, rather it’s to say that the problems could have existed in the “real world”. “How do I swim out from the beach past the waves and into the calmer open water?” is a physics problem that really mattered in my life, and was the problem that really made me understand Newton’s second law of force, mass, and acceleration.

2. They required real-world tools. I had to figure out how to do something using the best technology for the situation. “Design a process for real-time feedback to the Model U.N. Conference headquarters from 100+ small sessions” was a problem that led me to Google Docs – an important tool I now use daily.

3. They asked me to innovate, to think about a situation differently. When my high school government teacher Mr. Garcia asked me “What is the best way to draw single-member district lines for the House of Representatives?” I didn’t even know what gerrymandering was. I found I had to invent something called proportional representation, and though I later learned PR was already working in places in Europe, my interest was piqued and my creativity was fostered.

4. They were collaborative. I spent most of my youth in teams or groups, tackling all kinds of real-world challenges and learning from them. It’s funny when I look back on school and realize that the really valuable learning came from those situations during which I was working with others.

5. Reflection was explicitly required. “What did I just do?”, “Did it work?”, “How can this work better?”, “What should I do next?” are all questions that any problem-solver must ask to succeed. If I don’t reflect, how can I learn? Through reflection, I control my understanding and am able to transfer a lesson from one problem to the next.

Problem-Based Learning that focuses on Real-World situations is the gold-standard for instructional design. When done well, students must be creative, innovate, and reflective in their thinking. I know that my best teaching comes when I can design these authentic learning experiences for my students.

David Stinson’s approach to instructional design reflects these important principles. By using ePortfolios and allowing students to identify and solve real-world problems, he’s creating authentic learning – the kind that transfers not just from one class to the next, but transfers from school to life. The ePortfolio allows him and his students to see the process of learning and not just the products. Within that process are ways of thinking that are relevant to life outside of school, and fostering and habitualizing these ways of thinking should in fact be the purpose of schooling. Stinson’s class is one place where this is happening in a powerful way.

David Stinson’s approach to technology is altogether human: he learns alongside the children instead of instructing them the traditional way. At Sullivan upper school in Holywood, Co. Down, secondary-level technology students have fully embraced the brave new world of the e-portfolio.

Electronic files, images, multimedia, blog entries, hyperlinks and soundbytes are all “dropped” into documents and PowerPoint presentations in David’s technology class to explain an “entire” process of learning, not just the end product.

I really wanted a break from the hammering-a-nail philosophy to what technology could be,” he says. “Five years ago, I got involved in the whole area of e-learning and I’ve been running fast after myself ever since.”

By using video and audio diaries and much more besides, the kids can reflect on trials and tribulations they’ve encountered during the learning process,” says Stinson. “I will set a project that sounds simple enough: build a model of a stage, design a bird-cage, and so on, but how the students apply themselves to that process is where the real curve learning is.”

I am very open-minded when it comes to the students’ ideas,” he says. “Once I give them the basic learning tools, skills, confidence and approach, they can then innovate. Even if ideas are wacky and original, even if they fail, I respect their decision to go ahead. Students also need to fully write up these projects too, at a later stage, but you want the creative juices to flow without any impediments.

We didn’t have a big blue wall here in school, so the kids used a type of Blue Peter approach and brought in blue sleeping bags, pinned them to the wall and filmed themselves miming instruments. Music was added later and the entire thing superimposed on to their stage model for use at the press of a button. It was brilliantly impressive.”

The real benefit of using e-portfolios is that every student, regardless of ability, can adapt to the dynamic nature of recording their thoughts and emotions in video and audio, removing some of the anxiety involved in pen and paper communication. For students with special needs this can be especially constructive, as the unique nature of expression in e-portfolios takes away the need to endlessly compare to their classmates.

Sound files and video clips are used throughout the project. “I wanted to make an additional safety feature on my bird feeder,” explains the boy in an embedded sound-clip that accompanies the design drawing. “I wanted it to be safe from cats, but in no way to spook the birds. So I thought about having the birdfeeder sitting well away from the house, suspended from poles … I got my idea from an episode of You’ve Been Framed – seeing a cat climb up a brick wall.”

The corridors outside the technology room are chock full of children’s designs, drawings, roadmaps and “virtual models” used in technology portfolios. One virtual model is the sitting-room of a house where the window works as a wide-screen TV in its own right.

“These are the kind of forward-thinking ideas we need,” says Stinson. “This design makes a lot of sense: TVs in our sitting rooms are often very bulky and eat into the design space of the room, while in fact the biggest glass screen in the room is already ‘naturally’ there in the window, so why not base the design around that idea?”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/02/teaching-awards-david-stinson

Rigor, Relevance, and Making a Difference

Occasionally, we get word that something a teacher has done somewhere has made a big splash, creating a ripple effect that will benefit hundreds or thousands long after she’s done teaching. Such an impact was described by a Memphis newspaper this week:

Soft-spoken Triston Gillon, 11, is proof that a child can speak with a voice of reason.

As part of a persuasive-writing assignment in the spring, Triston, then a Sherwood Elementary fifth-grader, wrote to Peter Davoren, chairman and CEO of Turner Corp. That firm was general contractor for the new Yankee Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the world’s tallest building, the 2,717-foot Khalifa Tower in Dubai.

“I asked if Turner Construction could build us a playground,” Triston said Wednesday in a break from his sixth-grade class at Colonial Middle. “They responded by sending $50,000.”

Lachell Boyd is the teacher who inspired young Triston. Boyd had students write letters to real people, using persuasive tactics she taught them as part of learning critical thinking. Her idea was that her students ought to be writing for a real audience:  “I wanted them to see the results of the writing. I want them to see if you put your best effort into something good, people will support you.” And Triston isn’t Boyd’s first success story: Kristina White, who wrote to a Hewlett-Packard executive in 2009 landed her school a $100,000-plus computer lab and a visit from HP brass. Since Boyd began asking students to write for a real-life audience, the school has received several thousand dollars worth of library books, balls, badminton sets and jump ropes, thanks to the power of children’s voices and fine writing.

Boyd’s practical education strategy – teaching critical thinking by having students at a needy school ask for help from those who can afford to give it – is exactly the kind of teaching we need more of to improve education in this country. In an age when teaching to standardized tests is becoming more and more valued, the story of Boyd’s success reminds us that the best learning comes from designing authentic tasks for students.

What did students learn from this assignment? Boyd’s first goal of getting her students to see that they could make a difference – “I wanted the children to be thinking about the importance of leaving a legacy” – seems to have been met in ways she and her students couldn’t have imagined.  But did they learn to write well?

I once taught a writing course called “Critical Thinking and Composition”, which we began by considering what makes writing effective. Our first assignment, Logos, Ethos, Pathos, asked students to practice writing with three important strategies: logical argumentation, reliance on the authority of experience, and calling on the audience’s emotions. To do this well, students had to consider audience, purpose, tone, etc., all principles of good writing.  My 12th grade students generally understood the point, and in the end they produced some high quality writing. But, looking back, I’m sure putting them in a real-life situation like Boyd did for her 5th graders would have brought out the best in their writing.  Think of what it takes to write the kind of letter that can bring back a $50,000 or $100,000 donation. That’s some persuasive writing!

If we want students to get a rigorous education, we need to understand that the most rigorous learning is that which builds critical thinking, and the assignments that best build critical thinking are those that are relevant to the real world. Boyd’s 5th graders are analyzing problems at school, and thinking creatively of ways to solve them. By adding the real-life element, she takes the learning to a whole new level, engaging the students in the learning activity. Their product becomes something they can be proud of, and one through which they can leave a legacy for themselves and their school. Education can be transformational – regardless of whether the letters brought back a bag of dollar bills, asking the students to write a letter to a figure who was in a position to help them make a difference for their school ensured the students were practicing skills and habits of mind they will need as adults. Kind of beats prepping for a standardized test, doesn’t it?