Relevance, Permanence, Social Discourse and Filtering …or… “If I Were a Middle School Teacher…”

Between the curriculum project for Teach a Man to Fish in my development class, sharing and social networking discussions (so often including references to “the younger generation” which I have been a little shocked—though not wholly disappointed—to discover I am no longer a part of) in the New Media course, and launching a blog this weekend for my Mom to record her experience teaching religion to 20 high-schoolers at 6:30am every school day (Mormons call that “seminary”) I’ve been thinking a lot about teenagers. Specifically, how to teach teenagers.

First, I have been thinking about relevance. Teachers today don’t have the luxury of 12 years of public school to prepare kids to enter the “real world”—they’re in it now. The skills that used to be prerequisites for a job or college are fast becoming basic survival skills for the new media age. Things like information verification, bias control, interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, marketing ethics and accountability are a regular part of their lives, though they don’t often have the vocabulary or awareness to articulate it. If I were teaching middle school today, we would analyze the presidential debates in terms of traditional rhetoric, then look for similar patterns in discussion threads from our favorite blogs. Then we’d hold our own debates and post them on YouTube with our analysis. Instead of editing exercises, we would get points for finding and correcting different types of spelling, grammar and usage errors on web pages. Instead of book reports, we’d post reviews on goodreads. We’d tie everything we did to something in “real life” (we learn spelling because mistakes make you look stupid when you’re trying to make a point) and we’d challenge any activity that couldn’t make those connections.

This is closely related to some thoughts about permanence.
Transfer theory points to the motivational power of creating products that actually benefit others. Even products that potentially benefit others are more motivating than detatched practice. If I were teaching middle school today, we would be creating challenges for other students and designing the OERs that would support their learning them. We would post them on sites like connexions and they might not be there in 20 years, or in some cases even 20 days, but at least they wouldn’t be in a landfill.

I’ve also been thinking about social discourse.
If I were teaching middle school today, we wouldn’t do so much starting from scratch—we’d find stubs on wikipedia and work on expanding them, we’d use lesson plans from other teachers and work on refining them, and we’d create derivative art by combining and enhancing the talents of others with our own. We would talk explicitly about the interactions we were having—both formal and informal—pointing out the social mores, and the areas where we’re still in the process of forming them and developing our sense of stewardship for that process.

And, finally, I have been thinking a lot about filtering
. I remember distinctly the lecture my 5th grade class received from the school librarian as we prepared to embark on our first major [read: 5-8 page] research paper. She instructed us on the Dewey Decimal system and how to use the library card catalog. Our main challenge was to find information. Even as an undergraduate, I was still filling out inter-library loan cards and waiting for musty books I could only hope contained the quote I needed to be shipped from Indiana.  I doubt today’s middle school students have had any such experience. Their challenge is not finding information—they swim in it. Their challenge, and perhaps the most essential skill we can be teaching them, is filtering. If I were teaching middle school today, we would talk about the shift [a la Shirky] of filtering responsibility brought on by the advent of social media. We would talk about the old mechanisms; publishing, editorial review, production costs, and broadcast ratings, the systems that kept them in place and the functions they served. And we would talk about the new system and our role in it. We would explore tools like delicious and diigo and talk about how they can support communities of practice. We would construct evaluation rubrics for information sources not as rigid replacements for critical thought, but as articulations of a mental toolkit. And we would practice. We would use new media in the classroom every day and talk through the strengths and weaknesses of the information we discover so that it just became a part of our consumption, part of our creation, part of the conversation.

Yeah, I think it would be pretty fun to be teaching middle school today.

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2 responses to “Relevance, Permanence, Social Discourse and Filtering …or… “If I Were a Middle School Teacher…”

  1. It depends on where you are teaching middle school today; Clay Shirky’s world is far from a universal reality, even in affluent nations like the United States.

    The lesson/unit you describe would probably work well in most suburban schools. If you’re interested, a tool that would help you with textual analysis is Vocab Profiler.

  2. Pingback: The 100th Post Anniversary Extravaganza « (No Longer) Alone in a Library

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