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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Schools as 'prison houses': Misunderstanding media

I'm not sure what the game of "conkers" is like but, at the gut level, UK Independent Schools Association chair John Gibson certainly resonates, probably with most parents, when he says that playing outside "as a child and taking part in activities such as putting an oily chain back on a bike, or playing conkers, exposes children to emotions such as disappointment which prepare them for adulthood," as the BBC reports. He told the Association's annual conference that "many children are living in a 'prison-like environment' surrounded by technology," according to the BBC. Part of that makes some sense - and echoes UK clinical psychologist Tanya Byron's suggestion that "kids are being raised in captivity" (see this) - but what Gibson says about technology is way too simplistic, if not incorrectly dismissive. He said, "When your life is lived through images constructed by a technical genius from Silicon Valley played on a high definition screen I just feel it will be more difficult to experience those important rehearsals for adult life." Equating virtual worlds, et al as images on a HD screen reflects a basic misunderstanding of social media as mere technology, an add-on to "real life," while social media are people's real-life producing and socializing 1) appearing on a screen and 2) extended onto the Web - not much like TV! The very "prison houses" of school and home Gibson refers to (and made so because of the fearful adult society Byron refers to) are what have made social media so compelling to youth!

Gibson told his audience, heads of independent schools in England and Wales, that they should offer children a diversity and excellence of experience to challenge the culture of technology in which they live outside school. Absolutely. But maybe word it a bit differently: to enrich, rather than "challenge," the cultures and interest groups they're participating in with the help of technology. Seems to me that, if schools could use social technologies to help teach social media literacy and citizenship, they will contribute to and enrich children's positive participation in participatory culture and society (moving full-steam ahead right now, largely without our education system). Just as school has helped make the use of books and other conventional media meaningful for youth for centuries, it can do so now with new media. [Meanwhile, the debate about whether the evolving Internet is hurting our children continues - see "Social networking infantilizing kids' brains?"]

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