This is a Voicethread that looks at both the work and the play I experienced during the Churchill Fellowship.
‘The teenager seems to have replaced the Communist as the appropriate target for public controversy and foreboding.’
~Edgar Friedenberg, The Vanishing Adolescent
Wherever I have travelled in the US, one name has frequently been cited with regard to online safety and global citizenship- Anne Collier. A journalist by profession, Anne is a ‘Truth- teller’ who’s work through NetFamilyNews.org and ConnectSafely.org, is cited by those who seek a more reasoned, less sensational voice in this highly charged domain.
Anne served on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, formed by 49 state attorneys general at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society as well as participating in various advisory boards, attending international conferences, and co-chairing the Obama Administration’s Online Safety and Technology Working Group , which sent its report to the US Congress last June.
It was a delight to meet with Anne and encounter a voice that actively challenges perceptions that parents and schools have about the safety of young people online.
This posting will blend Anne’s understanding of this issue with my own musings on the subjects of fear, youth voice and the label ‘digital natives’.
The origins of Fear
It is perhaps unsurprising that the majority of schools in America adopt a fear-based, protective attitude towards young people’s use of the internet given the origins of legislation pertaining to it.
Anne recounted the origins of Federal legislation dating back to the 1990s when the internet was still in its Web 1.0 infancy. Whilst initially the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children made use of the internet to find displaced kids, this set the scene for framing children and young people as potential victims: not an auspicious start. From the get-go, young people online was perceived as something risky.
Having interactions of young people with the internet already associated with Law enforcement and the Department of Justice predisposed the response taken by those bodies. Thus police began giving presentations to parents that demonstrated, in real-time, the predatory nature of some chat rooms by entering the spaces as a fictional student. These experiences served to alarm parents. To this day such presentations emphasizing the potential risks, threats and legal ramifications are still being delivered to students, staff and parents. In such instances the most egregious acts against children are revealed, skewing the public perception further.
Fear was later enshrined in legislation. The amusing, if aggressively titled, Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) was meant to cause schools to block or seriously restrict access to social networking websites rather than “predators,” actually. This bill was not based on sound evidence linking instances of child molestation and/or grooming behaviours to social networks. Not the least controversial aspect of the bill was the emotive and misleading title. Worryingly, if one spoke in opposition of the bill one was perceived to be somehow in support of predators.
Thankfully the bill did not pass. But children still seem to be seen by policymakers only as potential victims and passive consumers online rather than agents of their own and others’ well-being in online community.
Next up: The Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. The parameters of this Act were to inhibit the creation and distribution of child pornography, to protect young people from online predators once more and to remove the possibility of commercial exploitation of youth. Once again, young people were framed as passive, innocent, defenseless victims.
(3) with the explosive growth of trendy chat rooms and social networking websites, it is becoming more and more difficult to monitor and protect minors from those with devious intentions, particularly when children are away from parental supervision. Section 202 12-16
Anne was a consultant on the formation of this bill and watched as it was passed from the Senate to the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee for further discussion. Thus, the Senate believed that the care and safety of young people, now perceived as some form of commodity, also belonged to the Department of Commerce rather than solely to the Department of Justice. This lead to conflict between the two departments with the boycotting of reports and a vying for control over who actually ‘owned’ online safety.
If we add to this confusion over jurisdiction the prevailing culture of fear maintained by the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, it is perhaps unsurprising that little was actually achieved in the arena of online safety and digital citizenship for over eight years.
The limitations of Fear
Clearly, the mainstream perception was and still is that fear is a useful tool; the understanding being that, if you scare parents and children then you will ‘scare them straight’ into becoming model citizens. Well, as we all know, that censorious approach has always been an effective deterrent against young people experimenting with drugs, engaging in underage drinking and promiscuity.
Fear does the exact opposite of what we actually need which is to generate a culture of reasoned discussion and debate. What fear does is scare parents and administrators into closing down access based on fear of what might happen. (In an increasingly litigious culture, fear is seen as a guardian against possibly crippling legal payouts. My observation, not Anne’s.)
Fear-based reactions remove the very resources young people’s need to help them make informed decisions. Safe, loving and informed adults are removed from the equation, replacing them with frightened reactionaries who shut off avenues for discussion. Thus, young people are left to go underground and rely on their peers to negotiate the complexities of online cultures, putting them at greater risk. As Quentin Crisp, a renowned victim of perceived fear put it, ‘The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.’
The discrediting of Fear
The fear-dominated discourse is being challenged as the findings of comprehensive studies question many of the assumptions held by parents and school administrators. Anne mentioned two significant reports published in recent years with which she was involved that have attempted to dispel misconceptions.
At the request of the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking, comprising of 49 state Attorneys General, the Enhancing Safety and Online Technologies Report (2008) was commissioned. Written by the Internet Safety Technical Task force, comprising of leaders from social network sites (including Facebook), academics, technology developers, teachers, internet service providers and consumer advocacy organizations, the report was published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
The Task force accomplished a comprehensive literature review and examined data from numerous rigorous studies. The report deals a serious blow to the rhetoric of fear and to the framing of young people as innocent victims of adult manipulation.
“The Literature Review shows that the risks minors face online are complex and multifaceted and are in most cases not significantly different than those they face offline, and that as they get older, minors themselves contribute to some of the problems.” page 4
The report goes on to explore some significant points.
• More studies need to be done around the area of sexual predation of minors by adults and of minors by minors (this latter area is understudied and “not part of most conversations about online safety”)
• Bullying and harassment are most common forms of negative interaction both online and offline.
• The internet increases the availability of questionable material such as pornography but does not automatically increase exposure.
• Young people are not equally at risk online – “The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies.”
• Young people themselves can contribute to the construction of unsafe environments.
The report makes three key recommendations, none of which involved banning access or censorship, rather they advocate greater exposure and evaluation of online tools.
1.All stakeholders in online communities need to share responsibility for protecting young people online.
2.More training in risk assessment and online safety practices needs to be developed for all who work with young people.
3.Parents and caregivers need to educate themselves about the internet and evaluate the use of tools in their own family context.
What is radical about this report is that it acknowledges the role young people themselves play in creating risky online cultures. For the first time young people are acknowledged as active agents in this arena. Also, the wording of point three is particularly relevant. Parents and caregivers are not asked to be educated but rather ‘educate themselves’ thus framing them also as active agents in dispelling misconceptions.
The second report, published in June 2010, Youth Safety on a Living Internet – report of the online safety and technology working group, from the Online Safety & Technology Working Group, evaluated existing online safety practices/resources promoted by the telecommunications industry and the education sector. Anne was the Co-chair of this working group made up of child-safety advocates, government officials, representatives from various internet and telecommunications industries, educators, and civil liberties groups.
One of the key understandings raised in this report is that-
“…thanks to the growing body of youth-online-risk research, we are now able to seek solutions as a society which are fact-based, not fear-based, but also that minors themselves – mainly pre-teens and teens (though the tech-literacy age is going down) – have a role to play in improving their own safety online and that of their peers.”
The sub-committee on Internet Safety Education also made some powerful recommendations as part of the report.
• “nationwide education in digital citizenship and media literacy as the cornerstone of Internet safety.”
• Avoid scare tactics and promote the social-norms approach to risk prevention.
• Promote instruction in digital media literacy and computer security in pre-K-12 education nationwide.
• Create a Digital Literacy Corps for schools and communities nationwide.
• Encourage full, safe use of digital media in schools’ regular instruction and professional development in their use as a high priority for educators nationwide
• Respect young people’s expertise and get them involved in risk-prevention education. (my emphasis)
As comprehensive, informative and myth-busting as these reports were, they were controversial and received considerable criticism. Even the review of peer-reviewed research in the ISTTF report was attacked. Attempts were made to discredit the findings. It appears views which challenge the status quo are themselves challenged.
The most significant aspect of both these reports, aside from taking a less reactionary approach and presenting a reasoned response to the issues, is that young people themselves are considered part of the problem itself and also part of the solution. Young people were now seen as stakeholders in their own right who were not only to be protected but also respected.
The alternative to Fear – Respect for Youth
Young people today are not just adults in training.
The Macarthur Foundation recently invested fifty million dollars and three years to do both quantitative and qualitative ethnographic research on youth culture in the Digital Youth Project. The extensive research acknowledged a new sociology of youth. The book Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out – kids living and Learning with New Media drew on the findings of the Digital Youth Project and makes it abundantly clear that there is a lot we need to do to earn the respect of young people.
They have their own cultures and societal norms in online spaces. As such there is an imperative to respect what they have to offer and to hear their voices on matters that concern them in a meaningful, consequential way. We can’t unreservedly impose our expectations upon young people any longer.
Sadly, Anne believes that in all her travels, talking to students, presenting to parents and administrators, attending conferences, consulting and chairing working groups she is yet to find a forum that is deeply respectful of youth. There are organizations that do enlist student voice – Inspire USA, Reachout.org, Childnet International, Common Sense Media, and Global Kids being some groups that actively seek out young people’s opinions on matters that concern them but none that respect the wisdom, experiences and inquiries of youth in ways that give them leadership in the field of online safety/digital citizenship.
Like the young audiences such adults are attempting to reach, Anne is bored by a rhetoric that seeks to inform rather than consult. I added that young people want and need to learn just not to be taught while it happens. Developmentally, adolescents are moving away from investing in adult figures of authority or at the very least questioning the decisions made by them. Ironically, this is the very time that adults frequently offer more feedback and make greater demands. Informed, authoritative voices of ‘cybersafety experts’ make it clear what has to be done to young people, for young people but not alongside young people.
When it comes to the ubiquitous ‘cybersafety’ lectures made by law enforcement or so-called online safety experts, Anne says that they may as well be carpenters given the way they are brought in to ‘fix’ a problem. This attitude is fundamentally disrespectful to young people. It says that we are the wise ones and your experience does not matter, in fact, you are broken in some capacity. Is it any wonder that they stop listening to us and go underground? In the words of the newspaper columnist Judith Martin, “Chaperones don’t enforce morality; they force immorality to be discreet.”
One significant way we can listen to and respect the positive choices made by the vast majority of young people is to take a different slant on data. In five New Jersey schools that were recently studied, Anne noted the findings of researchers from Hobart and William Smith in New York State that when there was a notable decrease in the perception of the frequency and instances of bullying, the number of actual instances of bullying went down. Why? The schools made concerted efforts to celebrate the positive data: the high percentages of students who were maintaining societal norms rather than over emphasizing those who transgressed.
It is to the voice of social imperative that young people turn. This social urgency is a necessity in young people – it is what starts them on pushing boundaries and refining the ability to assess risks effectively. Both of these are essential in developing independence.
Where is the opportunity to allow young people to meet their social needs and provide a forum/community of inquiry around safety and global citizenship? Instead we have teachers, politicians, journalists and businesses applying their value sets, their societal norms to young people without consultation. There is a need for us to step back and for the young to step up.
Learning to respect our elders.
We may be chronologically older, but in terms of experience in online spaces, young people are our elders.
The term ‘digital natives’ is one usually applied to describe the generation brought up alongside the internet. I personally dislike the term ‘digital native’. It is reminiscent of another meaning of the word ‘native’ that was once associated with patriarchal colonialism. Young people are not ‘natives’ who need to be saved from danger through re-education and tempted to conform by the offer of shiny beads in the forms of access, privileges and liberties.
Some time ago I coined the term ‘Simmigrant’ – a conflation of Simulated and Immigrant – to describe the experience of we now stand in relation to the online world. The internet is a new territory for us to discover and inhabit. First Generation Simmigrants – children and young people – came to this ‘country’ earlier, sometimes by themselves with a more courageous, pioneering attitude. Why did they leave their ‘homeland’ of traditional community and education? Perhaps they left for the adventure of exploring new ground? Perhaps they wanted to go where they felt kinship? Perhaps they wanted to find out what it felt like to be creatively free or perhaps, just perhaps we in the ‘old country’ failed to inspire them anymore. Perhaps if we actually asked them we might discover the truth and find out what more they need?
To do that we also need to travel, to become Second Generation Simmigrants or risk widening the divide between our two worlds
We won’t travel from the ‘old country’ without both unnecessary and essential baggage. In our suitcases we bring the ability to think critically, to reflect, to question and also a larger historical perspective that they could not easily carry. Our elders also don’t travel light either- in their luggage is stowed innovation, creativity, enthusiasm, innocence, experience, wit and a great deal of skill.
Anne believes that we are at a pivotal time in history when we have the opportunity to help free the wisdom in young people, to help unpack their suitcases and fully belong. To do that we must empower young people to connect to themselves more deeply, to learn to respect themselves and others in a way that builds upon the communities they are constructing. We need to provide our elders with opportunities to document their digital lives so that we may learn just who they are and what they have achieved. For this to occur we must give access to the very tools they enable this history to be recorded otherwise they will do it all on their own without the benefits collaborating with us would bring.
In order to begin our journey, we must give up fear-based reactions and promote a culture of mutual respect.
Peggy Sheehy, spoken to a Grade 7 class during a ‘teachable moment’
Suffern Middle School is a pleasant hour’s train ride from New York City. It is a co-education public school that caters to just over 1000 students. Students at Suffern have access to both a diverse sporting and musical curriculum and are clearly successful in both as well as in academic pursuits.
Suffern is proud of its Full Value program which consists of seven core values. These are proudly displayed and were frequently referred to during my visit. These values are not school rules to be obeyed but rather qualities to enact which will enhance their experience of learning and assist in building positive experiences for others. The seven Full Values are –
Like many Middle Schools, there are numerous clubs, societies and other affiliations to stimulate student engagement. Regarding clubs, Suffern was the first school to begin a learning presence in Teen Second Life and is presently championing the role of World of Warcraft in learning.
I came to Suffern with a big question – do massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) promote positive values and build connections between young people and the world? And who better than to ask that question of than the one who first brought virtual worlds to Suffern than Peggy Sheehy.
Peggy is more than a teacher. She is an inspiration and an educational force of nature.
Following 25 years as a professional vocalist, Peggy pursued further learning in education that led her to receiving multiple Teacher of the Year awards in multiple counties. In her role as a ITF/Media Specialist at Suffern, she is dedicated to integrating technology in the curriculum in meaningful ways. This commitment led to the creation of the first learning space for middle aged students in Teen Second Life. Peggy is a popular presenter at national technology in education conventions and district wide teacher training. Her clear, informed, no nonsense approach on the future of education is sought out by educators around the world.
Peggy Sheehy is a notorious figure in the American Computers in Education community. I use the word notorious affectionately and with respect for her fierce defense of freedom, of inquiry and the rights of young people to negotiate their own learning. She is an inspiring leader who is now leading the field in using the commercial World of Warcraft as a learning tool.
WoW (as it is most commonly called by players), is a multiperson online fantasy role playing game in which individuals and groups (Guilds) complete quests in order to gain skills, equipment and points. Their trajectory through the complex narratives is dependent upon their success with this individual and group tasks. It is an engaging allegorical vehicle for young people to explore a number of issues and concepts in a relatively safe environment.
In the US alone, Peggy cites research from the US Department of Justice and the Bureau of Statistics that indicates juvenile violent crime is at a 30 year low. The graph she shares in presentations which is copied below shows the advent of some signficant consoles and games that have at one time or another been used to link gaming to violence. But the facts just don’t add up as you can see.
Kids have played violent games of one sort or another prior to the creation of computers and adult fears of growing violent streaks in young people are constantly raised but frequently unfounded. They are more likely to be exposed to real violence on television, cartoons, fairy tales and in sporting competitions.
So why are these spaces only ‘relatively safe’? These spaces can be unpredictable and as such are hard to completely control. It is the open possibilities that attract young people and encourage exploration and experimentation. It should also be argued that, as Helen Keller remarked in a quote I have used earlier ‘safety does not exist in nature.’ Our streets are only ‘relatively safe. That meal on our plate is only ‘relatively safe’ depending upon, for example, your relationships to nuts or shellfish. Even one’s opinions are only ‘relatively safe’ depending with whom you share them. Relatively safe is utterly normal.
Sorry, but once again the research does not back up that assumption. Peggy cites data from a number of researchers which states –
‘Almost 60 percent of frequent gamers play with friends. Thirty-three percent play with siblings and 25 percent play with spouses or parents. Even games designed for single players are often played socially, with one person giving advice to another holding a joystick.‘ Peggy Sheehy, World of Warcraft in Schools ppt
She goes on to cite those games in which young people pit themselves against each other in combat, attempted to destroy the other and in the process forge stronger friendships in the real world. Gaming is simply not the individual opportunity for personal point collection that many of us first experienced in the 1980s with Galaga, Frogger and the ubiquitous Space Invaders. Games are social but challenge our definition of what socialising looks, sounds and feels like. Games like WoW build into their game-play the opportunity to form groups or Guilds that can function in a number of ways.
Peggy argues that Guilds are the Bowling teams of the 21st century (not to suggest that ten pin bowling is an outmoded form of social interaction by any means.) A Guild is a Community of like-minded yet diverse individuals who meet for a common purpose. They form relationships with the Guild as a whole and with individuals within the guild. Guilds also become a collective, a library of stories and remembrances where favourite and not-so-favourite moments are recalled and shared.
Although I had the opportunity of sitting in on several classes during the day and speaking with teachers, the highlight came after school when I met members of The Legacy. These five students were experienced WoW players and were the subject of a trial carried out last year. Whilst in some respects they matched my preconceived expectations of ‘Gamers’ that don’t bear repeating, they completely floored me with their level of self knowledge, their ability to articulate and their sound understanding of that it means to be part of a community.
I took a ‘Devils Advocate’ approach with ‘The Legacy’ and asked them, ostensibly, to defend this program on educational grounds only. It must be said that they were not coached or prompted by Peggy. Their responses were delivered with honest conviction and passion. I’ve adapted their responses below.
Mr Caldwell: So, guys, this is it… Just five of you?
Legacy: Oh no, more are joining the Guild next week. We have some trouble with time zones so its hard to get us all together.
Mr Caldwell: Sorry, time zones? What do you mean?
Legacy: Well, we’re just part of the Guild. There’s a school in North Carolina and a new one just starting up in Florida. It’s gonna be a busy time training and supporting them so they can join us on quests.
Mr Caldwell: Train them? So you’re the leaders, then?
Legacy: No, we had elections but decided against having one leader to boss us around, rather we are all we have office bearers in each of the states. We talk in chat and on Skype to make decisions for the Guild.
Peggy has supported these young people to reflect on leadership and to reach out to other schools to join the guild. The students manage a Guild Wiki and share their adventures – often writing narratives based on their avatars or sharing game tips. The game itself has a number of structures that support community. Besides the narrative in which one sides with one of two groups striving collectively against foes, there are opportunities to trade and store communal items.
Watching them play and talk was a lot of fun. Yes, they were defeating monsters but they were also engaging in narrative and helping others to succeed. They have learned some useful groups management skills and grown familiar with the tools that make long distance team work possible. But what have they taken away from the game that has been applied to their daily life?
This Youtube video made my members of the Guild from another school and, indeed, another State says more than I could about the value of their time in WoW.
The skills WoW exposes students to are the skills we need in the twenty first century. Teamwork, communication, social responsibility, map reading/orienteering, goal setting, resource and time management, new media literacies and traditional text-based literacies are all developed within the game platform. Employers are acknowledging the team skills consolidated in gaming environments to the point of asking if prospective employees are gamers.
But it goes deeper than this. Peggy is unequivocal about this next point – this is a program for character development. It’s not just character point development, as in ‘I have more strength points than you’, but moral development and values formulation. Our avatars allow us to, in her words, ‘Put our best faces, our best thoughts, our best ideas, our best dream and our best honour forward’ into the world. As a reinforcement, she addresses the Guild not as students, not as kids but as Heroes – affirming them with agency and noble ideals.
Members of the Legacy who may once have been social isolates are now effective, collaborative team members communicating purposefully between state lines in an attempt to make their communal fantasy world a better place by contacting that which is noblest within them. In so doing, they are learning skills and life-affirming qualities that, in the future, just might save ours.
In an affluent wooded suburb of New Jersey only a short car ride from the towers of New York City, is the Morrow mansion. Since 1930 it has been known as the Elisabeth Morrow School. The ancestral home of the Morrow family is now at the centre of a complex of specially outfitted school buildings that cater to the needs of 460 co-education students aged from 3 – 14.
It is a remarkable school in many ways. The facilities are outstanding, despite the necessity to adapt a sprawling ‘country house’ into assorted classrooms and offices. Their experiential science space is a notable highlight – it invites play and personal inquiry across multiple scientific domains. Not least of the reasons the school is remarkable is that it bases its entire philosophy on four keystone concepts that it terms ‘The Four Cs’
Marianne Malmstrom (aka Knowclue) is a technology teacher committed to engaging students in dialogue between these Four Cs and access to emerging social technologies. (I have written about her before in a previous blog entry.) She empowers her class to use safe and proactive practices online. Her method is simple – let the young people share what they already know and deeply value their contributions. In essence, she impeccably models the Four Cs in her interactions with young people.
At the time of my visit the school year had only recently commenced, so there was still much to learn about the students’ Internet use. Marianne surveys the class’s opinion and experience: on this occasion, she allowed me to frame the questions. Whilst the questions themselves, based around their online identities and eCitizenship, produced some interesting responses, it was a rare unplanned discussion that gave us a startling insight into young people’s attitude to online safety at school and at home.
As we were conducting the survey, it struck me that these students had no idea who I was or, for that matter, could I be trusted. I interrupted the survey and asked them, ‘How do you know you can trust me?’ They were initially troubled (one student said, ‘Oh, you are creeping me out!’) but then increasingly engaged as they explained why they felt I could be trusted. I scribed their responses in a diagram so that I, a visual learner, could best understand the data. This is a more refined version of the same diagram.
The students identified that they possessed specific Knowledge about online safety, Skills with the tools and, most originally, ‘Wit’ which I took to mean cleverness, humour and a sense of perspective. I suggested, and they agreed, that they also had the benefit of Experience. In turn, they knew that their teacher also possessed Knowledge, Skill, Experience and Wit which informed her choices. This understanding was then extended to the school. In summary, the students could trust me because all these factors would have filtered out anyone undesirable from entering the environment.
We then turned to look at the home environment to see if there was any difference in their perception of safety.
This diagram had less layers, more components and more ‘holes’ as one student put it. Firstly, the students identified differences between Face to Face (F2F) friends they also meet online and purely online friends (their ‘Peeps’) which was revealing. Interestingly, they cited Gaming Friends (World of Warcraft Guilds were mentioned specifically) as a separate category. Membership to these groups, it must be said, s not mutually exclusive. Siblings, they noted, had differing degrees of understanding about online safety practices due to age and education. Parents seemed to monitor their Internet use less than teachers did at than school. The lack of connection, as indicated by the orange highlighted gaps in the model, is indicative of the lack of communication or even exposure to the various aspects of a student’s online presence. Do parents or siblings know to what extent a child participates online? Is there open discussion and sharing? For that matter, do teens invite such interest from family members?
My reflections on this diagram are in accord with the recommendations put forward by Susan McLean in Australia. Four of her five top tips for safety online relate specifically to the whole family being united in discussing, knowing and planning for how the Internet is to be part of their communal and private lives. (see previous Blog post Generation Next – the Next Menace.)
I then asked the students to tell me the questions they should have been asked in the survey. Their questions were insightful and reflected their need for guidance and support. Here are their unedited questions –
These questions prompted the following interchange between myself and a student that is worth reporting.
Mr Caldwell: ‘Young people don’t really need teachers at all; they just know so much anyway. Young people like you, you are so wise –‘
Student: ‘So, then, why do we go to school?’
Mr Caldwell: ‘To help…so we can help you see your own wisdom.’
Student: ‘Oh!’ *realization dawns and the student smiles*
What an amazing opportunity to hear the voice of young people and learn from their wisdom!
In a world in which children and young people are increasingly part of global online communities, a school’s Student Code of Conduct is being rewritten to reflect that shift from a purely school based environment. The Four Cs at Elisabeth Morrow School are increasingly becoming the ‘portable property’ of each student wherever they travel – whether in the physical or virtual world. Whilst the reality of the Four Cs implementation is clearly apparent in the technology rich classrooms, the written policies have yet to catch up but are on the revision agenda.
Elisabeth Morrow’s Four Cs could be a global template for building positive connections online. For this to occur, however, schools may need to revise student Codes of Conduct to reflect the undeniable fact that students have existing online identities with associated behaviours. The Internet is no longer just an electronic library – a respository of facts. The internet is now an interlinked series of Places of Participation that encourage the creation of online identities through which one can gain and add information an any number of ways.
This brings us to the issue of control and security. At Elisabeth Morrow, the students feel safe and supported but want the opportunity to explore further. We need to respect that request. In order to enact the Four Cs fully we need to be understanding of the fact that young people need to take risks and that they need to make mistakes, but do so in a supportive environment. This shows consideration for their adolescent need to push boundaries. That said, no one would argue for putting young people in significant risk: I am not an advocate for no filtering of internet content; that would be akin to putting your child in the drivers seat of a Ferrari without a seat belt, license or driving lessons and handing them the keys. Instead, Marianne Malmstrom and I argue that if we do not engage students in active discourse around controversial content we are not making them more secure, rather we are enfeebling their ability to make informed choices apart from adult intervention.
I would suggest that schools take a more relaxed approach with regard to network administrators blocking Internet content but at the same time, increase the implementation of programs that empower students to critically evaluate content and engage in more proactive self-monitoring. This is a trend that is emerging at Elisabeth Morrow and, as such, is setting a standard in the United States.
Lastly, if students were to enact the Four Cs online they will be, in turn, adding to the societal norms of online spaces. By keeping them out we deny knowledgeable, skilful, experienced and witty young people the opportunity to challenge the existing paradigms. Were young people to bring the Four Cs to bear in online spaces with commitment and consistency, we may, in time, have a very different Internet. This would be the lasting legacy of the true School of Tomorrow.
The last posting recounted the general situation in which many find ourselves – despite best attempts at trying to live a fulfilled life, there are times when our actions don’t connect us to our deeper ideals or deeper ideals that others hold. In that posting I summarised the universality of human needs and the way in which we strategise to meet them, often with undesirable results.
The practise of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) suggests that we need to contact our true needs in any given moment of conversation so that we speak from them. Drawing attention to our feelings, those responses to needs being met or unmet, we can then amend our course so that we can be more fulfilled. Much of what we do in conversation can be judgemental – building barriers rather than bridges between people.
This posting will examine how we might best forge connections and assist others and ourselves to meet needs. To start we need to generate Empathy.
Let’s start by saying what Empathy is not. For a start it is not a synonym for Sympathy. Sympathy arises when we encounter another’s difficulty and imaginatively co-experience what it might be like in their position. So, when someone says they feel miserable because nobody listens to them, we might adjust our volume to be parallel with the speaker and adopt a tone based on how we might feel in the same situation. ‘Oh, you must feel awful, you poor thing…’ we might even say, thus assuming and pronouncing a judgment on their inner experience. Thus, it becomes about us commenting on and approximating their moment. Essentially, when we are sympathetic, it is about us. This is not to say that sympathy isn’t useful overture to empathy – it can help draw people closer together, but it can involve the listener colluding with the speaker’s situation and not necessarily assist them to move beyond it.
Empathy is a subtly different but altogether more profound option. Empathy provides an opportunity for the listener to help the speaker come to know his or her own feelings and needs while concurrently affirming their own need for connection.
Empathy, when practised effectively, embraces all the people present in the communication. If not, it can give the impression of being akin to a therapy session. Therefore it is important to frequently touch in with one’s own feelings and check to see what one’s own needs might be when offering Empathy.
Firstly, for people unfamiliar with this model, it might be best to ask permission to try it before launching in, as it is rather like switching into another language in the midst of a conversation and, as such, it can be bewildering. Also when starting out with NVC, there is a standardised way of phrasing empathic speech that may appear stilted or unnatural. Over time, through extended practise, people tend to find their own more intuitive voice to communicate empathically.
Empathy begins by listening to both what is alive in you at the time and to the other person as they speak. As mentioned above, most important of all is to know what is going on within yourself- you cannot offer Empathy if you are wanting Empathy yourself. When the person is speaking, pay attention to more than the words – observe their behaviours and mannerisms with a kindly intent. Then begin by asking questions, not out of a desire to guess correctly so as to appear wise and ‘Empathic’ but rather as a gift to the other person that will help them unlock the secret of their unmet needs. The questions asked have two parts: you identify what they might be feeling and then suggest why they might be feeling this, though we need to phrase this in terms of their need rather than on any storyline or strategy.
In many cases, NVC is employed as a mediation tool where a third party might intercede and assist others to reach some form of mutuality. Thus, using the previous example of the person who does not feel heard in meeting I have brought in a person practising NVC – let’s call him Marshall.
Brad: “You don’t listen to my opinions. Clearly, you are not interested in what I have to say.”
Marshall “Are you feeling frustrated because you value appreciation?’
NOTE: This is not an opportunity to affirm the storyline for the person and side with or against their antagonists so one doesn’t offer…
Marshall: “Are you feeling frustrated because you value appreciation and you believe Janet is am not capable of seeing you?’
The underlined section is an analysis and a judgment which blocks Brad from connecting to his core need and draws him into the situation, into the troublesome narrative. We do not need take Brad into the conflict, but rather into what he needs.
Again, it must be highlighted that this is not an opportunity to be clever and ‘do’ NVC on somebody so that we might guess their states correctly like some perverse game. We are not reducing another’s experience to point-scoring, rather we are assisting the other person to come into contact with what lies at the core of their pain. Sometimes we do not touch on their feelings accurately, and that is perfectly acceptable, in fact, it might assist the person to look for themselves to see what they are actually experiencing. So, for example-
Brad: “Janet doesn’t listen to my opinions. Clearly, she is not interested in what I have to say.”
Marshall: “Are you feeling embarrassed because you believe in working in partnership?
Brad: ‘Um… not, not embarrassment exactly but more feeling agitated or, exasperated that Janet doesn’t take my ideas seriously.’
Marshall: ‘ Exasperated. Ok. (pause) Are you feeling exasperated because you value acceptance and would like to have more appreciation in your life?’
Brad: ‘Yes! I’d like to be appreciated for what I say. Actually, I do just value appreciation – its important to me. ’
At this point it could be valuable for Marshall to approach Janet and see if she would be willing to accept some empathy.
Marshall: ‘Janet, can you tell me what’s going on for you in your relationship with Brad?’
Janet: ‘He’s a pain! Well, it’s not that I don’t appreciate what Brad has to say, it’s just that he takes so long to say anything of value. I get lost in all the stories he tells that I lose the original point.’
Marshall: ‘So, Janet, do you feel confused when Brad shares his ideas because you value clarity?’
Janet: ‘Exactly. If he could just get to the point… I mean, I’d say something to him but I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but clearly I have by doing nothing. He’s so needy!’
Marshall: ‘I guess that you are feeling irritated because you value independence and efficiency.’
Janet: ‘Yeah… why doesn’t he have confidence in himself? People like that frustrate me. I like working with confident, self-actualised people.’
In this example, drawn from practice sessions during the course, Marshall has been able to allow the combatants to access their core needs through skilful observation of their behaviour, through reading their tone, listening to their words and reflecting on what might be alive in them at that moment. We have ascertained that Brad has a need for Acceptance, Appreciation and Mutuality, whereas Janet has a need for Clarity, Independence, Efficiency and possibly Community in as much as she wants to be with like-minded self-actualised people. Are their needs in conflict? Both have a need for Connection that is not being met in their relationship. At this point the conversation with Marshall needs to take a different direction and move into the participants making requests.
Requests are a do-able, realistic, positive action that one asks of another in order to assist the meeting of a need. Requests are not demands but negotiated suggestions for future behaviours. They are always specific so that there is minimal room for ambiguous interpretation.
Marshall: ‘Janet, I wonder if you would you be willing to ask Brad when he is speaking if you are confused about the point he is trying to make?’
Janet: ‘Isn’t it rude to interrupt someone when they’re speaking?’
Marshall: ‘When I hear you say that, I hear that you value respect for other’s feelings.’
Janet: ‘Well, yes. I do. I don’t want to interrupt him because it might hurt his feelings.’
Marshall: ‘Brad, I wonder if you would be willing to accept an interruption from Janet when you are communicating your point of view?’
Brad: ‘If it helped Janet hear what I have to say, then, sure. How she interrupts would be important to me, though.’
Marshall: ‘Janet, would you consider saying to Brad that you are lost or confused and that you need some clarity?’
Janet: ‘Sure. (smiles) I could say, maybe, “Skip to the end…?” ‘
Brad: (laughs) I think I’d get the point if you said that.’
In this example, we can see that both of the people’s needs can be met. Though Brad’s storytelling is not appreciated, the need for his point of view to be accepted will be, if Janet takes the move to interrupt him. Perhaps a follow up could be for Marshall to check in what everyone has agreed upon so there are no remaining misconceptions. Also, if the storytelling is an important way for Brad to be heard, then perhaps finding others who appreciate that aspect of his communication might be a way to meet that need.
This posting has been an overview of the Reconnection process. We begin by observing our own feelings and needs then observing/ guessing what they might be for others. From a place of Empathy we ask questions, not provide solutions, that allow the other person to contact their own feelings and needs. Once there is that connection, there is an opportunity for correction in the form of negotiated requests.
The next and last posting in this series will contemplate implications for educators and the young people in their care.
‘When we stop competing against one another and choose instead to cooperate., we strengthen the community to which each one of us belongs.’ ~ Craig and Marc Kielburger, Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World
My Churchill Fellowship began with a three-day training course at the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication facilitated by Thom Bond. The course was an effective blend of the theoretical, experiential and the reflective.
Participants were from mixed professions – health care, social workers, teachers, artists, students and it attracted people from around the world. Most participants voiced both professional and personal motivations for attending; some noting that coming to the course was prompted by a need to change dysfunctional relationships. I was there to see if this particular methodology could be applied in online communication- could kids practice nonviolent communication as a way of reducing the destructive relationships that are increasingly found online?
Firstly, Nonviolent Communication (hitherto NVC) is a process, awareness or way of being that creates and maintains connection between individuals and groups. It is sometimes also known as Compassionate Communication. It is a methodology that allows effective communication with ourselves and with others in a more compassionate, constructive manner through identifying and articulating core human ‘feelings’ and ‘needs’. Essentially, it asks us to be human in a different, life-affirming way that may be counter to our habitual methods of communication. Some of us have developed styles of communication that are based largely upon judgments and criticisms.
Beyond being a personal development tool, NVC is valued as a mediation practice that is implemented in hundreds of schools worldwide as part of restorative justice programs. These schools report decreases in interpersonal conflicts amongst students and staff as well as improved student engagement, responsibility for their own learning and increased levels of mutual respect. In addition, NVC is practiced globally in assorted projects from as diverse countries as Africa, India and Eastern Europe as a way of helping communities heal.
NVC addresses two key questions –
NVC provides practitioners with a shared vocabulary of feelings and needs that goes beyond the limited ‘happy’ and ‘sad’. Knowing feelings and needs more fully then allows us to select from a broader range of strategies that allows us to meet needs in ways that promote connection.
The process draws attention to the extent to which we engage in moralistic judgments in our day to day communication based around whether our needs are met or unmet and offers alternative approaches. Such judgments include making comparisons, denying personal responsibility for our actions – ‘She made me do it..’ ‘You made me feel…’- and affirming certain actions with rewards and other behaviours with punishment.
NVC has, at its core, recognition that human beings have needs. This is a radical notion for some who have been raised suppressing personal needs for the sake of the needs of others. Needs in NVC are not personal but universal. Needs are phenomena that everyone strives and yearn for. Needs or Values, in the NVC sense, go beyond our wants and desires for material goods and even pleasure – they are universal impulses common to all.
Needs are generally listed as abstract nouns rather than as concrete objects. Thus, some common overall headings for human needs are Connection, Play, Peace, Physical Well Being, Meaning, Celebration, Spiritual Communion and Integrity. Under these there are many subtle variants that we can only discern by frequent reflection. However, it is difficult in some cases to discern needs, particularly when many might be present in any one moment. Needs are at the core of all human action.
Here is an example: When we say to someone, “You don’t listen to my opinions. Clearly, you are not interested in what I have to say.” We may be thinking that our need is clear- we need our opinions heard by others: it is up to others to do what we want. What NVC suggests is that the need is not in ‘being heard’, rather we are over-emphasising the strategy we use to get our needs met- in this case the strategy is to talk about our opinions to certain people. However, a strategy is not a need. In this instance the needs could be a wish for Acceptance, Appreciation or even Mutuality. Indicating that one is or is not ‘being heard’ places the responsibility of the need being met on the shoulders of others. It also predisposes the other person’s internal response – that they are not interested – which is only an interpretation of their behaviour and may not reflect their true experience. This kind of interaction does not build connection as it based on blame and judgment; it is a strategy that we have habitually employed to attempt to meet out need for, possibly, Acceptance, Appreciation and Mutuality. It could also be the case that this particular listener may not be capable of assisting the speaker to meet that need and that need might best be met in communication with another individual.
Feelings are the sensations and emotions we experience that arise in dependence on the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Like needs, they are hard to identify; being able to discern feelings is a skill in itself. Feelings are an indication of how our present experience is meeting our needs. Fulfilled and Unfulfilled Feelings have distinct qualitative tones and, like Needs, are classified under some overarching themes. When needs are met we may feel – Affectionate, Self-Connected, Inspired, Engaged, Refreshed, Grateful, Excited, Joyful, Peaceful or Hopeful. When needs are unmet, we may feel Afraid, Confused, Annoyed, Angry, Embarrassed, Disquieted, Fatigued, Tense, Vulnerable, Pain, Sad, Disconnected.
Referring to the previous example, in a meeting where we interpret another’s behaviour as dismissive of our opinion we may actually feel frustrated, irritable, disappointed and angry which are sourced from a number of the headings listed above. Knowing what we are feeling provides us with a guide, as instrumentation, to then make more informed choices about the most appropriate strategy to meet the fundamental Need.
Judgments are the comments, either internal or spoken aloud, that cause disconnection or maintain distance. They are an attempt, a strategy to meet a need that does not actually succeed in fulfilling what a person truly values. In essence, these comments tend to block empathic communication. When others speak with us, we can interrupt the speaker’s process in any number of unconstructive ways. It is easy to see that in the illustration above, the speaker is making a judgment of the other person. Using the example above, but from the perspective of the person accused, she or he might respond in any of the following ways-
These statements take away the opportunity for the speaker to forge a connection and actually meet their need for Acceptance, Appreciation or Mutuality. It shifts the emphasis and attention to the new speaker.
The diagram below models the terrain of human communication. At the core of our beings are a vast set of Universal Needs that, depending on their degree of ‘met-ness’ give rise to certain feelings – some pleasant, some painful and some just neutral. These feelings are indicators of the degree to which our needs are being actualized. Feelings can give rise to criticism and judgments of others that when expressed or internalized build barriers. Now judgments are not the only strategy that can be engaged to respond to feelings and needs. Some more constructive, connecting responses will be explored in the next posting.
I see all of these things happening in the communication I observe between young people today. They are extremely vulnerable to acting/speaking based on feelings alone. They constantly react to stimuli rather than take a more creative, if time-consuming approach, to forge connections and mutually meet needs.
I’ll write more of this in the next posting which outlines the differences between Sympathy and Empathy as well as outlining the process through which young people might use NVC in communication.