Recently, Gerald Fussell wrote a blog post examining how our priorities in schools support our students and their diverse, dynamic needs. Based on his thinking around Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs using a school lens, and the graphic he created above; he explores the challenges schools face in supporting students through to the Self Actualization phase and how “the many conscious and difficult decisions we need to make along the way require us to be clear in our priorities”.
In a perfect world, all of our students would come to school every day well rested, well fed, clean, healthy, happy, feeling good about themselves and ready to learn. But some of the time, and perhaps for a significant segment of our students, that is not the reality. So yes, schools need to be clear on their priorities and make tough choices in supporting students while making sure their basic and psychological needs are met before we can aspire to assist them with their self-fulfillment needs.
It’s a delicate dance schools must do in supporting students with their varying needs; a balancing act of sorts that comes with great consequence. What complicates this even further is the reality of the very dynamic, digital world our students are growing up in. With a shifting world, comes shifting needs. And along with shifting needs comes a shifting role that schools must take on in order to best prepare students moving forward. We must revisit the graphic above to explore and best support students with their changing needs in our DIGITAL WORLD. In some cases, students get these emerging needs related to our shifting world met at home, but for others, this is not the case for a variety of reasons.
Our kids now walk around with a hugely powerful, connected tool at their fingertips. In fact, many of them do not know a time when that wasn’t their reality. What effect does too much, and late-night screen time now have on our students’ basic needs? Are they getting enough sleep? Are they getting enough exercise? What are the long-term implications of staring at a small screen on eyesight or health? What does the effect of unfiltered content have on their developing, impressionable minds?
Ultimately, it comes down to good judgment and finding balance. Our kids need to learn the responsible and safe use of digital devices. They need to learn not only balance but also boundaries. And as parents and educators that means modeling limits and responsible use. What message do we send our kids when we ourselves are not present but instead distracted by the device in our hands, instead of focusing on them? Technology is a tool, and with it comes a means to powerful connectivity and knowledge, but in the end, it does not replace the importance of human interaction, face to face conversations and personal relationships. It is one means, not the only means of connection and interaction. In our homes and in our classrooms we need to strike a healthy balance of opportunities for collaboration, both one on one as well as networking online. Issues around balance are of rising concern. Problematic computer use is a growing social issue which is being debated internationally. “Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) can have huge impacts on people’s lives by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems. Surveys in the United States and Europe have shown alarming prevalence rates between 1.5 and 8.2%.
We need to ensure we are always supporting our children in striking a healthy balance in their lives and doing the same on our own. With the busyness and often plugged in nature of day to day life, at home we need to be cognizant of carving out enough time and demonstrating the importance each day or week of engaging in regular meaningful conversations, participating in a sport, going for a walk, playing a board game, enjoying a hobby, taking a nap, and hanging out with a friend…unplugged. And at school, we need to continue to support our learners in the areas of social-emotional learning, and mental health education in an effort to do our part in ultimately helping them move towards a place of self-regulation.
Also, related to basic needs is the notion of equity. See the graphic below that perhaps ironically, adds a wifi level in as a basic need for today’s generation. In fact, in recent times, the United Nations has declared access to broadband as a basic human right and disconnection from the Internet against International law. Despite some people’s nostalgia for a simpler time, there is one thing that is certain; we are only moving forward. The influence and impact that technology will potentially have on our lives will only continue to change and grow.
So, how can we as schools, best support our students that do not have access to digital tools at home? It is imperative for these students to have access within the school context to give them opportunities to gain the essential digital experience, and skills relevant in the world today. We need to offer them the chance to create, share and build confidence in digital platforms. If we don’t, the learning gap and divide between themselves and their digitally native peers will grow even bigger. As digitalization changes the world of work, and artificial intelligence and automation continually to shift jobs moving forward those more versed with technology will have greater opportunities and the digital divide will only grow bigger for our students with limited access.
Moving forward, students should be able to use a variety of tools to drive their learning; both hi-tech and low-tech. Many schools encourage mobile learning and BYOD environments, in which students may not necessarily USE technology ALL the time but they do have ACCESS to technology as a tool when it is needed, relevant or applicable. In regards to priorities, ensuring equity and addressing the needs for ALL students to have access to technology tools is one area in which schools will need to make changes moving forward. This may involve the reallocation of funds to purchasing mobile devices in schools to support student learning. We also need to offer guidance to our learners with the abundance of information they are continuously inundated with. They need scaffolding and instruction when making decisions about the reliability and validity of information and ultimately how to look at online resources with a critical and evaluative lens.
Who is helping our kids navigate the messy waters and huge implications for online bullying and digital safety? Most schools do some sort of digital citizenship training such as MediaSmarts to explore important topics such as cyber bullying, online security/privacy, excessive use, intellectual property, online hate, and exploitation etc. In many ways, programs such as this one are very valuable and support students’ understanding and skills around navigating the dangers and pitfalls of the online world, however, these programs are often taught out of context and in isolation as individual lessons or with one-off guest speakers. This is a good start, but we need to also build on this type of programming by using real world, teachable moments while modeling in the classroom context and having conversations about topics based on real-world examples and current events.
We also need, as schools, to support parent understanding around the necessity to be vigilant and tuned into the online presence of their children. Many parents are unaware or ignorant of the potential dangers their children are in while behaving online in ways that are careless or naïve. Many other parents are in the dark to the true extent of their children’s’ online interactions and they may be intimidated by their own lack of expertise in this area.
Also, cyberbullying is an issue that potentially impacts many. It seems today’s youth are much more likely to say just about anything behind the guise and protection of a keyboard. The sharing of personal information online is also a concern. Many school districts host info sessions and bring in “experts” in this field or even law enforcement to share stories and strategies with parents for helping youth stay protected and being proactive online. It is apparent after repeatedly being a part of these initiatives, that no matter what the level, the students, and parents are shocked about how much they don’t know and about how vulnerable their children can be. Many parents are overwhelmed and intimidated by just how much there is to know in the way of awareness, knowledge and skills and the quickly changing landscape of the digital world. Active participation is not optional in this area and as adults, we need to be tuned in and actively work alongside kids in regards to their online presence and strive for more open communication around all things related. Families need our help and guidance as educators in these changing times in doing so.
Some teachers may argue that this is not our job. However, if the ultimate role of schools is to prepare students for a purposeful, successful life which is responsive to their current reality, then schools taking on a larger leadership role, in the area of online safety, skills and responsibility is a must. In fact, the only way to create a generation of informed and educated individuals in this area is for schools to lead the charge and if not us, who? And if not, at what cost?
Love & Belonging Needs
The digital world our learners exist in brings with it a whole new layer of needs and complexities that directly impact their ability to learn in our classrooms each and every day. What modeling and teaching are in place to support the complex dynamics and relational pieces involved in social media?
Today, for many of our students their sense of belonging is directly linked to how many Instagram followers they have, how many views they have generated on their latest YouTube video, or how many likes they have on a recent post. They put a lot of stock into what their profile pic is on their various social media platforms and work hard to ensure they have just the perfect “bio” or Snapchat Story of the day. It is a “selfie” world where kids feel compelled to post only pictures and info featuring their “best self” in their quest for acceptance. Kids can become consumed by checking status updates and the instant gratification and immediate feedback that comes along with online interactions. “Popularity” is often defined by their online image and much social capital is generated by one’s number of followers or friends. In fact, it seems the term “friend” has in some ways become redefined by the social media world and exploration of the meaning of true friendship is something worthy of discussion with young, impressionable minds. For some, being distracted and consumed by online interactions can prompt dissociation from the here and now, and actually impede kids from interacting in ways that are meaningful and productive in their “real” world. For others, the need for love and belonging may be so great that this makes them particularly vulnerable when they look to online interactions that may be unhealthy, unsafe or possibly even lead to addictive behaviour.
Kids are highly invested in their online presence which right or wrong, seems for many to directly correlate to their sense of belonging and acceptance. More than ever we need to have conversations with our students about the dynamics of real authentic relationships and values around friendship, self-worth, and self-image. It is a brand new world out there; and in many ways unchartered territory for a number of adults as well, including many of our school guidance counselors and teachers helping students navigate these times and the far-reaching implications. We need to have conversations with kids about what in fact defines us as learners, and what defines us as people. We also need to offer meaningful and contextual teaching and learning on the topic of guidelines around online behaviour that gives students the experience and practice necessary in a scaffolded setting, so that moving forward they can make the best choices possible, independently.
As mentioned above the role the digital world can have on someone’s sense of love and belonging and ultimately their self-esteem and self-image can be complicated, and potentially have negative consequences. However, the digital world can also be hugely empowering and have positive effects when youth are equipped with the right understanding, skill set and experiences as they grow. Our students’ needs in the way of esteem and self-confidence are directly impacted by their sense of love and belonging as well as their success and achievement. How does the online world impact our students’ potential for success as well as their confidence and self-image? When we DO well, we FEEL well. Our students have a variety of entry points that may feed their self-esteem needs. Some excel at academics, others at athletics, well others in the arts or through leadership. The digital arena offers a great opportunity for students to achieve great success in the way of being creators and producers and many are embracing these opportunities. We live in a time where “YouTuber” is now a feasible and authentic job, and where the magnitude of online content being generated every minute is astounding. A phone, tablet, camera or laptop, can serve as a tool to support our learners quest for achievement and success no differently than a paint brush, pencil or soccer ball may have in the past. Whether it be creating how-to videos, exhibiting music recordings, sharing 3-D imaging models, showcasing a digital art portfolio, blogging or vlogging; digital tools can be powerful and productive ways that serve as a great avenue to allow students to explore interests, take risks, and recognize their own potential and capabilities as learners. What our students create informs their identity. In turn, this online identity can also help students create a “digital footprint” to go alongside their increasing positive esteem and image.
In fact, in today’s world, the potential impact of our digital footprint has never been so significant. In recent years we may have spent time talking to kids about the potential negative implications of making one bad choice when it comes to an online presence. In some cases, we may have raised awareness about the potential fall out of posting inappropriate comments or pictures online that could be forever linked to them moving forward and how the Internet is unforgiving in that way. But the conversation around online identity and digital footprint should be bigger than that. In this day and age, it is almost a given that potential employers will Google all applicants for a job before interviewing them. And now it is no longer just enough NOT to find anything negative about an applicant, in fact now, many employers may choose a candidate who has a very positive and substantial online presence above someone who has a non-existent or neutral online presence. Being a positive, contributing, productive creator online is now a 21st C skill employers are looking for and sets students apart.
So how do we help our students to embody this 21st C skill set? How do we ensure our students become independent, insightful and actualized as digital learners? We need to support our students in moving to a place of digital leadership in which they are able to make responsible, ethical, productive, end empowered choices, independently, in today’s digital world. George Couros, author of “The Innovator’s Mindset” defines digital leadership as; “Using the vast reach of technology (especially the use of social media) to improve the lives, well-being, and circumstances of others”.
How do we best support our learners in moving into this space of digital leadership? For today’s youth, becoming a self- actualized digital learner, leader, and citizen means exemplifying and paving the way towards only online positivity, meaningful contributions, and powerful creation. It looks like taking a stand on the hateful, derogatory, and negative comments we often see under many YouTube videos and newspaper columns, and instead of addressing each other with respect. Self-actualization looks like having analytical conversations and debate online without slander and scandal. It looks like making good choices, demonstrating evaluative skills, thinking critically and establishing a positive digital footprint. Self-actualization of today’s youth in our digital world looks like modeling for and guiding future generations, as well as the one before them.
All of this is not something that happens overnight and it is certainly not something that happens without proper support both at home and school. Yet, we still have schools that ban devices. We still have entire districts that block YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and hundreds of websites, choosing to ignore rather than face concerns head on and embrace the opportunities of teachable moments in context. We still have educators that say, “I don’t do social media”, wearing it like a badge of honour. How do we support the evolving needs of our students if we don’t reside in the same world as they do? Social Media is an evolving literacy. Hopefully, we would never say to a student, “I don’t read books”, or “I don’t write” so why or how is social media any different?
There is no question that social media has become a present-day literary competency. How are we as educators helping our students to be safe, responsible, positive, thoughtful and literate in our digital world? Imagine the positive impact schools could have if we began teaching and modeling digital leadership from an early age in classrooms, and it became the norm for our students from the start. Imagine the positive impact schools could have if we empowered our learners from an early age by giving them the opportunity to use digital tools to explore, create, share and connect starting in our primary classrooms and continued building and developing these skills throughout.
Once again, if the ultimate role of schools is to prepare students for a purposeful, successful life which is responsive to their current reality, then schools must take on a much larger leadership role in supporting students with the digital world These are exciting, unprecedented times and along with that constant evolution and change follows the continually shifting needs of our students. And as the needs of our students change so must our mindset, our practices, our approach, and our priorities.