“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill
It’s been a while since my last blog post: it being a lengthy, reflective and sentimental walk-through my Churchill Fellowship. In essence, I learned a lot about the effect of fear and negative mind sets around the use of technology by young people. The most inspiring people were those educators who embraced the possibilities rather than the problems that present themselves in todays tech rich environments. You can read more about my encounters with Knowclue and Peggy Sheehy and Barbara Stripling and the amazing Quest Atlantis team in my full report set out below.
You can access the full report, some of which is based on previous blog posts though most is original, in the embedded ISSUU below. For those who may not recall the purpose of the Fellowship, you can read my proposal here. To save you time, dear reader (should you like so many of us living in the ‘Pace Age’ and have only a nanosecond of personal time) I have placed the recommendations from the report in the following screencapture.
Screenshot of recommendations
For those of you with more time, I invite you to read my full report below. I welcome your feedback and comments.
School Library System. As part of her role she is responsible for developing a Grade 1-12 Digital Citizenship curriculum for implementation in 75 schools in the city. Or is she? If you read below you’ll discover her innovative way to construct and implement this program in New York City. You’ll also read of the twin enemies at the gates of change – Time and Administration.
Barbara took time from her busy schedule to meet with me in a space dominated by an enormous, somewhat distracting sculpture by Lichtenstein to discuss the role of public libraries in developing eCitizens of today and tomorrow.
What is a library in the 21st Century?
There is a great potential to turn around the common misconception that libraries are just storage facilities.
Barbara’s vision is to see libraries become Cultural Community Centres focused around learning and the development of potential. In this model, students engage in active discovery and produce materials inspired by their imagination.
Most significantly, Barbara believes that libraries should become places of provocation where different perspectives are debated and pushed against because, in her philosophy, learning is a social endeavour that requires challenge to ideas for learning to be truly significant. Schools, therefore, could become places for the debate of knowledge, akin to the role of the agora in ancient Greek city-states.
The challenge to this Vision
Barbara is of the view that social media tools have not added significantly to the arena of inquiry and debate.
Whilst she acknowledges the usefulness of these tools, she believes they can be misused in the name of education. Yes, tools such as Twitter, Facebook Instant Messaging and even Blogs allow students to connect with each other but do so only on one level of conversation- the social domain. Even when such communication extends beyond social chitchat, the products are short non-penetrating pieces that have little synthesis of ideas.
I presented to her the work of English linquist David Crystal who is an advocate for a new approach to the new phenomena of Textspeak (used in texting, tweets and IM). In his seminal book, How Language Works he successfully places the Textspeak within the continuum of written and spoken language. Textspeak is a creative innovative medium that invites originality. Regarding the uptake of the form amongst younger people he says,
It is patently a special style arising out of the pressures operating on users of the medium, plus a natural desire (especially among younger –or younger-minded – users) to be idiosyncratic and daring.’ P 157
Barbara is now curious to read Crystal’s work, however, she remains concerned that we have yet to see evidence of these tools or this new ‘language’ leading students beyond superficial responses. In an educator’s enthusiasm to throw innovative technology at our students we sometimes fail to equip them with the skills that allow students to process information, reflect upon what they have read and then create something that will be of benefit to themselves and others.
Barbara sees that when students research online, they tend to do so laterally – only finding repetitions of information that confirm initial findings. There is little effort to discover contradictions or alternative perspectives on issues and then come into some relationship with the tension that arises between these contrary positions.
When it comes to publishing, Barbara believes that students extend this uncritical attitude to their own work: therefore, my opinion is just as valid and true as anyone else’s because it is published on the web. The Cult of the Amateur, though providing voice to students is not helping them say much of any depth, particularly when locating solid evidence is not valued.
How do we encourage a more critical, reflecting attitude?
Educators have an obligation to challenge attitudes about knowledge and knowledge creation. In a global world it is easy to just listen to the local, the familiar and the comfortable because it requires less effort. More effort is required when challenged to chart one’s own path through the many diverse opinions available at our fingertips.
An effective digital citizen is one who seeks out and develops a relationship with alternative perspectives whilst also being connected to their own core values and beliefs but still maintaining a willingness to be challenged.
Stripling Inquiry Process
Barbara has created a methodology that incorporates a respect for diversity and incongruence, which can be applied to any research task. It poses a fresh way of accessing and evaluating information.
It begins with connecting our understanding of the general field to which our findings might relate once we have conducted the research. This leads us generally to wonder about these fields, locate some key terms to help direct our attention. The next three steps are pretty traditional research stages with the additional refinement of the need for real audiences for the finished product. Though it appears as the final step, Reflection is not a final step at all. Reflection underpins the entire process and is done at each stage of the process.
Barbara says that her ‘internal mantra’ is ‘does this teach a child to think’? Her inquiry process aims at doing just that – inviting students to contextualise their learning and reflect on its value. She believes that this model allows students to actually think about what they are discovering rather than just repeat what they have found.
NYC Digital Citizenship Curriculum
Barbara and her team have laid out a comprehensive Digital Citizen ship scope and sequence for New York City’s schools that encompasses Grades 1 through 12. The curriculum is structured into two strands Safety and Responsibilities that spiral through each of the grades. This is to both acknowledge school administrators necessity to monitor Internet Safety and to challenge the predominantly fear-based discourse at the same time by indicating that students are active participants in the community and, as such, have certain responsibilities.
The program is remarkably similar to the Australian resources produced by ACMA– they even share common resources. The innovation lies in the manner in which the curriculum is being constructed. Rather than have it written by District level consultants, the plan is to invite classroom teachers to apply for a grants. As part of the grant, teachers receive training, a flip camera, a digital projector and a Netbook. In return, they write and deliver demonstration lessons on one of the content areas. The student products of these lessons, small Common Craft style animations, will then be hosted on the department’s website as a future resource. These are a simple way for students to develop conceptual understandings around the concepts of Safety and Responsibilities.
This pilot program has novel approach and it will be interesting to observe the results. The benefits are that teachers are rewarded for best practice and for adding to a larger community pool of resources. Students are presented with a high-stakes audience to present their findings to.
I did perceive some potential areas of growth in the curriculum. Despite Barbara’s best intention to challenge the Fear based paradigm, the program lacks the strand of Possibilities – what is possible by connecting with others online. This moves us beyond just beyond the technology and into its purpose – to connect people and ideas. I would argue for a stronger component on what is possible if digital citizenship were embraced effectively.
Also, looking over one of the sample lessons for Grade 9 I about digital identity I was troubled by the strong moralistic judgments students were being asked to make about their own identity and the identity of other people. Depending on the level of discussion and reflection, this moralistic language would be problematic as it might suggest that only certain expressions of identity were acceptable.
The real roadblock to change
Despite the pilot initiative due to roll out in November, there are some significant blockages already in place that will inhibit its effectiveness.
Barbara says that ‘the infrastructure is hurting’ meaning that the school systems do not have the bandwidth or the capacity to handle even the amount of internet useage being attempted now let alone that which is planned for the future. Schools do not have the capacity to store and share the files the students will be creating in this program. Not only this, students in the NYC district schools do not have email addresses and will not for another two years which will impede their ability to share products.
Ironically, members of her team will be leading a professional development conference on the educational uses of 21st technologies but are unable to find computer labs suitably equipped to do so in the district. How can we teach about the technologies without the ability to demonstrate it? Time is running out if the department wants to share the value of emerging technologies and help NYC kids become leaders in digital citizenship.
What it all comes down to is funding. There have been significant budget cuts as administrators come to the ill-informed view that as ‘everything’ is now available online, libraries are an unnecessary extravagance. This has lead to the closing of numerous school libraries across the city. In some schools there are no libraries at all! Though there was no evidence available during our discussion (we could not access the erratic WiFi system to confirm, funnily enough) Barbara believes that the very schools that need libraries – those from lower socio-economic groups with poor retention rates and low-level literacy – are the ones that are facing library closures.
It is not, however, a totally bleak picture. The Heart of American Foundation is one philanthropic organisation that approaches large corporations to fund and renovate libraries in need. Their READesign program has assisted hundreds of libraries across the country in setting up new facilities and collections. They even provide free, quality, new books to children who attend the inauguration of the libraries. In some cases the seven books a child receives are the only books they have even owned.
Google map of libraries renovated by the Heart of America Foundation
But these are remarkable exceptions to a growing trend in downsizing and reducing the role of libraries. When asked if there were plans to develop the infrastructure more wholeheartedly as part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ initiative, Barbara wryly remarked, ‘We are all left behind here.’
On my way out, Barbara pointed out (not that it needed to be pointed out) the remarkable sculpture that had drawn my attention upon arrival- an original Roy Lichtenstein. Far be it for me to challenge the meaning of art (Lichtenstein is one of my favorite artists) but I wondered how many miles of broadband cabling, WiFi hubs, quality novels or computer labs for schools it might provide were it to be sold?
‘Words have a great deal of power. They have a power to lift people up, to give people courage and strength, to make it a better world and they have the power to break down, be hurtful and destroy.
We want our words to build and lift and bring up to the light.’
Peggy Sheehy, spoken to a Grade 7 class during a ‘teachable moment’
Why Suffern Middle School?
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 –
Care for Self and Others
Let Go and Move On
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.
Who is 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.
What is World of Warcraft?
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.
‘Relatively safe?’ Online role playing is violent. Doesn’t it inspire violence?
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.
Ok, not violence inducing then, but it sure is socially isolating!
‘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.
What exactly is a Guild?
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.
Guild Case study: ‘The Legacy’
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 legacy of ‘The Legacy’
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.
‘I am reluctant to decide by myself what is important for you to learn because I believe that the most important aspect in learning is to choose what is worth learning. If I alone make that choice, every day I would be reserving the most important part of learning for myself.’ Dr Marshall Rosenberg – Life Enriching Education p 81
Visit to the Elisabeth Morrow School – September 27, 2010
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’
consider other people’s feelings
help others when needed
invite others to join activities
work together as a team
practise self control
Treat others as you would like to be treated
Have good manners
Be tolerant of small annoyances
Be understanding of other’s feelings and needs
Learning from the wise
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 –
Do you think school should be involved in social networking?
Have you ever been in a fight on a computer?
Should some Internet content be prohibited?
Is it easier to chat with people online than with friends F2F?
How old or what sex are the people who IM or text?
Is it safe to friend anyone on FB or social networking sites?
Where would you go if you have a problem online?
Would you say stuff online that you wouldn’t say in person?
When you post something bad about other people do you think about your future when you post something bad? Do you consider the consequences of your actions?
Do you save your chats or do you delete them?
Has someone in a chat ever changed your emotion, for example made you sad?
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!
Conclusions and Recommendations
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.
Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect! ~Owens Lee Pomeroy
On Friday 10 September I attended the Generation Next conference at the University of New South Wales, ostensibly for the session on Cyberbullying delivered by Susan McLean. The day was aimed at teachers, youth workers and health care professionals who work with children and young people, with the intent of bringing us all up to date on recent data and developments. Though there were some brief instances of how to lead young people forward, for the most part, the day was an exploration of the dark places that some, and I emphasise some, young people inhabit.
What follows are some brief notes on some of the sessions; key points, personal observations and questions that arose.
The learned and entertaining Dr Manocha defined what he called ‘A Crisis of Consciousness’ citing research into growing rates of mental illness which he attempted to argue was due to rapid societal change. He argued that contemporary consumerist, permissive culture emphasises an ‘Anything, Anytime, Anywhere’ values system that young people are not cognitively or emotionally mature enough to negotiate or critique effectively. He put forward the argument that the social/cultural environment was one that added extra stressors to the lives of young people – peer pressure, bullying, increased sexualisation and violence that was adversely affecting their mental health.
Question – Hasn’t it always been the case for older generations to bemoan the developments in youth/mainstream culture that seem to undermine their own values systems?
Alcohol and Other drugs – Current issues with Paul Dillon
In what could have been a series of Motherhood statements on why drugs are bad, Paul Dillon gave an impressively balanced presentation that aimed at clarifying some of our misconceptions about drug usage in the country, misconceptions that are manipulated by the media in order to create an environment of fear. What was most striking was the way in which he inverted statistics in his graphs to highlight the number of students who are successfully NOT taking drugs. These he uses in schools to validate the choices the majority of young people are taking in abstaining. He also clarified the issue of caffeine in our culture and in energy drinks. Apparently there is more in our morning freshly ground coffees than in the most common brands.
Tom Young – Beyond Blue Youth Ambassador
In a brief but affecting recount of his life journey, Tom spoke of being burdened by excessive anxiety and the steps he took to manage it. A young role-model to everyone who can empathise with intense feelings of unhappiness despite evidence to the contrary.
‘Suicide is seen as a problem solving device’ – An interesting remark made by Dr Carr-Greg early in his presentation gave us all cause to reflect. Apparently 75% of all young people in Australia are mentally well but the remaining 25% need some careful intervention as untreated depression can be, in his words, ‘fatal’. These are the young people who strive to hide their conditions behind masks of seeming normality. In some cases it can take from 5-15 years from a diagnosis to receiving treatment. He outlined the sorts of behaviours that manifest in young people that might be warning symptoms. Notably he remarked that kids retreat online in order to escape their problems but this might only increase their sense of isolation. He raised 5 key questions for parents-
Are you tackling the tasks of Adolescence? Identity issues, developing freedom from parental influences…
What is your child’s ‘cognitive map’? What is your child’s self-talk?
Do your children have a track record of keeping themselves safe?
This was, by far, the most confronting presentation I have ever attended. The ‘hypersexualised and pornified‘ images of young girls that were presented to us, each of which were liberally drawn from the mainstream media, were utterly horrific and clearly (if sensationally) argued that the media is eliminating the years of Middle Childhood (9-13) Girls are encouraged to present a ‘prostitute-like version of themselves to the world‘ through fashion and online games that promote young women as brainless, surgically enhanced ‘sexual service stations’ for men and, sadly, for boys. We were all encouraged to stay informed and become advocates for change by joining http://collectiveshout.org/ The session ended with a hopeful, charming short film which played with the idea of Loss of Innocence in an affecting way. Please click here to see a trailer for Ruby Who?
In response to the previous speakers, Lyn commented that if we look at the risk factors to young people alone, we might ignore the outcomes that are fine and lose the opportunity to bolster strengths where they already exist. Her main argument was based around what builds resilience in young people – what are the tipping points and the turning points. She defined resiience as-
the ability to face, overcome and be strengthened by adversities
it is a life-long changeable process of development
the ability to navigate and negotiate strategies to cope with life
an inoculation against stress which ensures quality of life
The Resilience Donut is a Visual Aid to assist people of any age to take a diagnostic review of their life and ascertain areas of strength and weakness in the support structures. She has defined 7 Key Factors.
Parent Factor – Resilient kids have parents that have a 50/50 balance of discipline and openness.
Skill Factor – the child has skills in a particularly field that is recognised by a trusted adult.
Family and Identity Factor – coming together as a family group that has positive expectations and may have come through difficult times together.
Education Factor – child feels valued by teachers who connect with them.
Peer Factor – not necessarily harmonious as conflict can help develop necessary skills
Community Factor – adults outside the family connect in an environment of confidence and faith.
Money Factor- learn to give and take
Whereas one might expect to focus on the deficits, the approach is to bolster and further develop the strengths – to look at what is actually working for the child already. Children at risk are those who have three or more factors under threat so lets look to that which is already strong and support it to be even stronger.
As expected, Susan McLean have us a ‘Reds Under the Bed’ presentation on the nasty, evil dangers of technology that many had apparently not heard before. For someone familiar with the territory of fear covered by media commentators, it was a great disappointment to have nothing new shared with us. It is true what she says, we are on public display when we use technology so we need to have a comprehensive curriculum that addresses cybersafety but not, in my opinion, one that solely focusses on the negative impacts of social technologies.
She shared some useful, if disturbing statistics –
50% kids on America have been cyberbullied
compared with 30% in Australia
69% of kids aged 13-19 have sent sexual images of themselves to a boyfriend/girlfriend
79% in older age groups (!)
Susan presented some potentially useful strategies to protect young people online-
Never be angry when a young person shares a bullying experience with you
save and store the evidence
delete and block bullies from friends lists
never respond to a cyberbully
use the report abuse button
change passwords frequently
have downtime away from technology altogether
shoulder surf with your kids
Lastly, she suggests that parents implement five Top Tips
Never allow computers, internet capable phones in the bedroom
Have a ‘Family Online’ contract for all family members
Have conversations about computer useage
Know about the technology that is being used by all
Set up Filtering software on all computers.
Susan’s voice is an important one but her fear based rhetoric, loud as it is, does not address the fundamental need to present alternative ways to connect online. Her approach is only part of the solution. The only positively worded remark she made in her presentation was this, ‘Your school must embrace cyberspace as the valuable tool it is not the problem that it may become.’ And even that is framed in the negative! So, how exactly is it a valuable tool to create connections rather than destroy them? This is, I suppose, what my Churchill Fellowship is based upon.
Whilst much of the conference was stimulating, challenging and occasionally disturbing, I left the day with the overall impression that the attitude of the presenters was that the best way to support and serve youth was for them to be whisked back to the past where they would obviously be much happier. There, through our discerning rose-coloured glasses, there are no bullies – it is a place of peace and joy – the supportive village atmosphere is experienced by all. Back in the magical land of ‘Then’, children had manners and knew to look you in the eye when they were speaking to you. And most important of all, there was no evil child molesting Internet lurking the the bedrooms of our precious Innocents.
With the noteable exception of Paul Dillon and Lyn Worsley, the predominant discourse was one of Fear. Ironically, Generation Next was a timewarp where the 30+ audience ‘s nostalgia for an idealised childhood (which many may never have actually experienced) was emphatically affirmed by graphs, data, irritatingly diverse Powerpoint slideshow transitions and empassioned quotes from grieving mothers. We were encouraged to pack great reams of Fear into our sample bags that were already stuffed with stress balls and pens. Yearning for security is based on a fallacy – there is no ultimate state of security because life is an intricate web of conditions that shift and change with alarming regularity. Helen Keller communicated the dangers of security far more effectively than I.
‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.’ ~ Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)
I thank the Generation Next team for presenting their view of the future… sorry, ‘A’ future where we react from fear of what might become. I prefer to select a different future, a ‘daring adventure’ in which we invest attention in building upon positive connections of today that may support a more collaborative future.