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.