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Who can help pupils learn the social skills of the digital world?

Education

Who can help pupils learn the social skills of the digital world?

Eyes bleary, the teenagers log on; just checking emails they cry. One checks his phone, the other scrolls through his Skype messages just in case a late gaming friend has left a message. They have about 28 minutes turnaround from bed to front door given their late crawl from beneath blanket piles.

Two thoughts entwine: what if I stopped preparing breakfast and lunch, didn’t insist on them coming to the table minus any electronic device – will they just remain plugged in and miss their train? Or maybe at some deep habitual level ‘school’ will appear on an internal screen. A friend waiting no longer patiently at the station, will text ‘where are you?’ I won’t stop. Feeding sons is my habitual morning activity. But maybe I won’t call them. Maybe I’ll just test them: social media vs. family breakfast. Maybe I’ll lose.

The second thought though makes me pause, coffee temporarily forgotten. We consider the family in its many guises the fundamental social unit. Yet here on this school morning is a scene being played out in an increasing number of homes: early morning conversations with a wider community than just siblings racing each other to the bathroom or a parent vehemently insisting their child gets out of bed. Who else is in my kitchen? Gone is the sanctity of family before the front door opens. Friend, bully, victim….who else is here?

There is no doubt that at a benign level, social network sites have expanded communities. Chats can occur independent of and unrestricted by telephone cords or physical proximity. If they can, my sons oscillate between Facebook, and Messenger, apparently antiquated phones, Skype, Steam, and emails to talk with their friends before school. All have replaced the morning school bus machinations. But who takes on the school bus driver’s role in these online interactions? Who breaks up the fights? Monitors the snogging, protects the little or more vulnerable students? Now community is both isolating and global.

My sons conversation is littered with phrases and words I don’t recognize. They laugh at my slow and fumbling one-handed texting and insist I practice with two. I delight in reconnecting with a few old friends, they’re adding new and despite cautionary conversations often barely known peers in packs. They tell me about new sites they’re exploring; their general knowledge is phenomenal. How can we equip them for this adult world when they are already not just engaging but creating? This adult world does not stop at the front door. Checking history gives me little clue of my sons’ adventures. Assuming they haven’t already deleted it.

Social networking is about connecting, sharing, exchanging: community. We do it all the time. That’s the point. Society in the broadest sense teaches each new generation how to socialize. Not always very well. The greatest gift perhaps is to nurture empathy. And a deep, discipline- based ways of thinking, doing and being. A parent or two can seldom solely provide this gift; we need a community. We need schools.

Yes, this is another community my sons are part of: school. The triangle of education: child, parent, teacher varies not only between schools but also from child to parent or carer to teacher. At its best, this triangle teaches, scaffolds and instructs. It protects and challenges all of us within clearly defined parameters. Remember those readers from early school years?

Our local schools say they are actively teaching their students how to engage with social media in a safe and responsible yet ultimately enjoyable way. How do they do this?

I cross-examine my sons over breakfast – they were hungry after all! They tell me there are two ways: as part of a lesson sequence when technology is involved, and when someone is caught bullying or behaving inappropriately. In both cases, they see the discussions and consequences as largely teacher dependent.

I know their school uses Inquiry-based learning strategies for some lesson planning. Do they learn how to negotiate exclusion from groups, or how to navigate unintentional as well as intentional exclusion within these problem solving based scenarios? I posed that question, more or less, to my sons. Sort of they replied.

In the year two classroom, the students are being introduced to their email account. Hosted by the school server. Monitored by the teacher. The homework task: with your parents, logon to your school email account. Send an email to your teacher using the email supplied during class. Logon. Open school email account. Select new email. Type in recipient’s email address. And write a message. Check your grammar and message content. Press send. Procedure practice. It’s fun. Even the students still struggling to read can engage – spell check and in their own time can write an email. Eventually the teacher can scaffold and discuss far more than spelling, reading, grammar, but today it’s about using your own email. For some students it will be the first time. And for some students, they will have to have a go at school. Not everyone has a computer at home.

Year 5 students are proficient with emails. Here they use Edmodo: practise a far more public social domain. Pseudo Facebook.  Some teachers will monitor and model behavior – interact online with students and follow up with class discussions regarding appropriate behavior.   Son number two has had to resolve online Edmodo misunderstandings with his teacher as facilitator: something to do with someone ‘liking’ their own work and how this can be seen as boasting rather than pride. Son number one was excluded from a group plan for lunchtime handball. He discussed this with his teacher: the teacher ensured the face-to-face discussion with all the students helped the students articulate their reasons and feelings.

Now I can understand why my sons said much of the learning is teacher dependent. They both had a proactive, engaged teacher in year 5. But it makes me ponder whether at a societal level, we could be working together to teach our children to read and comprehend online society as well as society as we know it.

As parents we need to make sense of our world just as much as our children do. And learn from our children. That can be tough. We have to look further than what we consider normal, within our experience. We need to work with our children’s teachers. It’s challenging to have others in your kitchen, others you can neither see nor hear.   It can also be unbelievably rewarding.

Mother of two sons who negotiates being taught new technologies in exchange for free (almost) computer time.

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