The Curriculum Trap: Future-proofing Youth Media and Education

On 15 and 16 October, 2009, the EJC hosted yet another conference in its Innovation series, titled Innovations in Youth Media and Next Generation Classroom, and I was kindly invited to moderate the Maastricht event. Please see my colleague Howard Hudson’s article for more details on the proceedings and outcomes. Here are some conclusions I drew, loosely based on my wrap-up remarks at the end of the first conference day.

1) Street credibility is the cornerstone of successful youth media

Learning in general and the development of media literacy in particular benefit whenever children and teenagers participate out of genuine interest. Therefore, youth media must primarily ask the right questions and lead the way for young people to work out the appropriate answers by themselves rather than provide pre-defined educational responses which tend to appear patronising. Stephen Sayers from Futurelab in Bristol, Henk van Zeijts from Amsterdam’s Creative Learning Lab, and the UK educational reformer Richard Gerver delivered many examples of how this can be done. The challenge for media is how to accommodate such techniques to their respective means of expression and implement them accordingly. This means that media need to:

2) Recognise issues relevant to young audiences, and not only report but also get involved with them

Grzegorz Piechota illustrated how his newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, often assumes the role of an activist and becomes the organisational hub for campaigns driven by the Polish civil society, such as environmental, educational, liberty, or healthcare-related actions.

In a country with a generally pretty young demographic, the Gazeta has thus managed to hold on to its younger readership on paper as well as online. However, the Gazeta derives grass-roots authenticity from its origins in the Solidarność movement that brought down the communist regime in Poland and sparked similar peaceful uprisings in many Eastern European countries.

Most likely, a similar approach would not be credible if it were simply copied by other newspapers and media organisations. Yet it shows how media can benefit from taking their user base seriously by way of encouraging two-way communication and participation at eye level in response to genuine public interests. Which also translates into the demand to:

3) Supply young people with ways and means of expression which are not shaped by commercial marketing interests or the entertainment industry

Ingrid Hu Dahl from the New-York-based journal Youth Media Reporter emphasised that young people (as well as adults, for that matter) are not only exposed to huge amounts of advertising, but are also constantly talked into adopting certain stereotyped role models and patterns of behaviour by the commercial media. The ubiquitous casting shows on TV are only the tip of that iceberg. Young women, for instance, can be trapped into striving for an ideal of beauty that conflicts with their individual disposition; the same holds true for many non-mainstream communities whose real needs and interests are not reflected in the content provided by the entertainment industry. Hu Dahl called that a “fractured identity”.

Nicholas Covey from market research giant Nielsen indirectly chimed in when he pointed out that we tend to have a skewed vision of youth media usage. In actual fact, and contrary to popular belief, today’s teenagers still watch an incredible amount of TV while they are at the same time – compared with other parts of the population – neither the most avid users of online video nor of the Internet in general. Consequently, their media consumption patterns are not so much characterised by self-determined exploration of websites or publications catering to their specific interests, but by the conventional, marketing-driven media industry.

Therefore, media literacy in young people and beneficial media usage are best promoted if youths are given the opportunity to (co-)create their own media, thus enabling them to set their very own agenda and content against the images painted by mainstream media. In this vein, Anne Balsamo, representing the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media Division, called for “peer culture” to substitute a mere “fan culture”; participatory approaches serve to emancipate young people from being just on the receiving end of precooked content.

This does not preclude the input of experienced educators (or of responsible adults in general) at all; to the contrary, young people appreciate and actively seek advice and support of grown-ups (though not necessarily from their own parents, mind you), as long as the adults – again – take them seriously and are good at what they do.
It became clear that you do not necessarily need to be a trained teacher to be a successful instructor. At the very least, people with all kinds of vocational backgrounds can provide a welcome supplement to the efforts of professional teachers. As Richard Gerver put it: “Education is a task for the entire society.” That is all the more important because:

4) Confidence with technology must not be confused with technological competence

It was Futurelab’s Stephen Sayers, who drove this point home. The fact that many children and teenagers constitute what is now called a generation of “digital natives” (i.e., use computers, mobile phones, game consoles and other gadgets on a daily basis as a matter of course), does not imply that they use them with critical distance and deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

While he was at it, Sayers also did away with the celebrated notion of the blanket “knowledge economy” that is supposed to be on our doorstep. He argued that while global communications are increasingly detaching intellectual work from any specific location, Western societies are ageing and will require more physical care – not to mention all the other services such as cleaning, maintenance, and food, which may be organised by knowledge workers, but require actual people delivering them. Sayers predicted that society will become even more polarised, with a small high-tech elite and many low-paying, low-to-medium-skills jobs.

If this scenario comes true, media-related education might actually need to follow a different tack from what we often like to think. Indeed, for your average teen to acquire the capability of responsibly navigating the abundance of available technologies and information might just mean expecting too much. Instead, education must focus first on spreading the most basic skills as wide as possible. Sayers therefore set the supplementary goal of what he called “digital legibility” as opposed to “digital literacy” – the ability to read the digital world correctly before trying to actually shape it. This objective may well be served if you:

5) Apply genuine networked and multimedia thinking to youth-oriented projects

Anne Balsamo showed how it is possible to turn the dreaded attention deficits stemming from young people’s multi-tasking habits (which are commonly overrated, as Nicholas Covey insisted) into an asset.

She has experimented with multiple-screen learning environments, where a “Google jockey” highlights external cross-references with the main lecture’s topic, and where a dedicated online chat helps to channel the student’s instant messaging activities into an actual running commentary and semi-public debate on the lecture. Games show great educational potential as well.

Ingrid Hu Dahl added that approaching any topic from multiple angles just comes naturally to many of today’s teenagers. She quoted examples from her work in New York which included websites and video, but also person-to-person activities in the real world, such as street art, dance, or performances. Consequently, any kind of single-track, limiting approach to youth media as well as education does not seem to do the trick. Hence:

6) Beware of the traps of fixed curricula and of measuring everyone by the same yardstick

It was Richard Gerver who hammered this point home, and he was seconded by both Anne Balsamo and Henk van Zeijts. Gerver, who single-handedly turned a failing British primary school around and ever since passionately advocates innovative approaches to education, said that most current educational systems were designed to solve problems in society that exist today, but not to enable pupils to answer to (yet unknown) problems of tomorrow. Teachers, he added, are mainly instructed to implement policies and standards, to administer standardised curricula to their students no matter what, and to push them towards equally standardised learning objectives, verified through benchmark exams.

However, while ensuring easy accountability and transparency, too-strictly defined learning objectives and tests often confine pupils and students way beyond what is good for them. And by unwarrantedly disheartening apparent “losers”, they may severely limit society’s potential to answer with creativity and innovation to future challenges – not to mention set back happiness and success of individuals. Rather, education must lay the foundations for successful life-long learning, i.e., the ability to adapt to newly emerging technologies and ever-changing circumstances, by recognising and supporting a person’s specific talents even if they do not seem to fit with accustomed schooling patterns.

As it turned out, all teaching innovators present in Maastricht complained of an overall lack of interest on the part of their respective national education systems in their findings. While, in fact, many of their tenets are by now accepted into the mainstream of educational science and theory, the inertia of bureaucracies is stopping proper and speedy implementation.

And this is where youth media comes back into play: Innovation Journalism and participatory approaches have the potential to be part of the remedy. At the same time, they can help create public awareness of what urgently needs to be changed.