‘Do no harm’: Message to educators, parents

Where online youth are concerned, consider medicine’s first principle of practice, Prof. Henry Jenkins suggests.

By Anne Collier

This is interesting. University of Southern California Prof. Henry Jenkins didn’t put it exactly this way, but I don’t think he’d disagree: It’s almost as if, at this particular point in history (the history of education, media, and technology, in any case), educators need the same first principle of practice that doctors in emergency medicine have.

“Like with a physician, the first statement is above all ‘do no harm’,” Dr. Jenkins said in a video interview for Edutopia embedded at the bottom of this page of educator Jackie Gerstein’s blog User Driven Education. So I read Bill Keller’s commentary; thought about the great need to move past this endless hand-wringing; and wrote the above about that; then I heard this interview about what to do if you can’t move past the media fears (no harm) and what to do when you can – and had to transcribe it here for you. Because this message is not just for educators. So think of education as a metaphor as you read this text version of what he said:

Where we are now

“Right now teachers shut down the technology, they frighten parents, they close off avenues for kids. They tell kids again and again that what they learn outside of school [in digital media] doesn’t belong in school; and teachers have to remember that, every time they do that, they’re also saying that what you’re learning in school has no relationship to all those things you’re doing outside of school.”

Stop for a moment and think about the effect that might have on our kids’ attitudes toward school, the message that “What you’re doing in school has no relationship to the learning you’ve discovered yourself and are doing on your own time – that learning you find meaningful.” Educator Will Richardson calls it “the decoupling of education and school.” It contributes to the “participation gap” Jenkins talks about (and first wrote a paper about – see my 2006 post about it): “It’s not just about access to technology, it’s about access to learning experiences, to social skills and cultural competences, a sense of empowerment … that allow them to be participants in this new society that’s emerging.”

So, even if you don’t want to use digital media yourself, here’s what you can do (he’s speaking to educators, but think about it as a parent, physician, school counselor, etc.):

What to do if you’re stuck

“The first thing is to stop the pain, don’t do damage, pull back and have an open mind and perspective and be willing to explore, and even if you’re not ready to move yet into using new techniques, recognize and value the kinds of learning that are taking place outside of schools, and give kids the space to share that expertise in the classroom so that they feel better about the things they’re doing.”

Next: Stop devaluing kids’ online experiences, Jenkins says (something well-meaning people in the online-safety space and other professional spaces have been doing for well over a decade): “One of the [results] is that kids [themselves] devalue the learning that takes place in games and fan communities and online communities because their teachers and parents don’t value them, and that leads to a lot of problems. Some of the cyberbullying and ethics issues may be tied simply to the fact that they don’t see those experiences to be as real or valid as other things [this lines up with the finding by the Harvard Goodplay Project that young people feel a lack of consequence and efficacy in their online experiences – see this]. So let’s first validate that, then…”

Consider these next steps from Jenkins in the process of moving forward: “…figure out what we can learn from it [our children’s experiences in new media], and finally take that learning back and change our teaching techniques and our content to reflect that reality our students are living. But the first step is to do no harm.”

Guided by young people’s reality

Reflecting their reality seems quite basic, but my 14 years of observing how adults have responded to the media shift indicate to me that our messaging and work with children have reflected our reality (our concerns) more than theirs. In fact, I’ve observed adults in positions of power try to discredit peer-reviewed research about young people’s online experiences.

What would help greatly is more open, respectful communication between adults and youth. “The most robust communities I’m seeing where learning takes place is where adults and young people relate to each other in new [non-hierarchical] roles with relationships based on shared passions,” Jenkins said in the video interview. “Our classrooms continue to have very fixed relations between teachers and students, with teachers often saying, ‘I don’t know anything about technology and I can’t go there because I’m going to lose control of my classroom.’ We’ve got to create a space where people can learn from each other across the generations.”

That very notion is being explored right now in a research project involving young people teaching adults about social media in what I see as a vital demystification process. Called the “Living Lab,” it’s run by researchers connected with Australia’s new Cooperative Research Centre for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing. Among some preliminary results we heard at a meeting at Google headquarters last week, the adults in the study were relieved to learn that youth don’t have different values online and that young people will reach out for support when they need it.

Related links

* In Jenkins’s own blog, a two-part interview with Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown about their new book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, starting here
*The Characteristics of Participatory Learning,” a long blog post about what Project New Media Literacies has learned from conducting a pilot professional development program for K-8 educators in New Hampshire this past year
* As co-chair of the Online Safety & Technology Working Group (the first such national task force under the Obama administration, I invited Dr. Jenkins to come speak to us – see a bit about his contribution to the report in my blog post about it, “OSTWG report: Why a ‘living Internet’?” Among other things, he told us, “Most young people are trying to make the right choices in a world that most of us don’t fully understand yet, a world where they can’t get good advice from the adults around them, where they are moving into new activities that were not part of the life of their parents growing up – very capable young people who are doing responsible things, taking advantage of the technologies that are around them.”
* About the findings of the preceding national task force, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, whose major contribution was a comprehensive review of the youth-online-risk research through its year of work at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society
* ConnectSafely’s “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth,” which we published in 2009, between the two task forces.

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