Teachers must give Scotland’s students a digital code to live by

Generation Z may be able to run rings around us all in terms of technical know-how but teachers are best placed to equip children with the real-world skills they need to avoid the pitfalls of an online existence, writes Susan Ward
16th August 2019, 12:03am
Students Need A Digital Code To Live By

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Teachers must give Scotland’s students a digital code to live by

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/teachers-must-give-scotlands-students-digital-code-live

I have an old dial-up telephone that sits on my desk at school. I found it in my mother-in-law’s house and, like most things of a certain age, it has a comfortingly solid shape and feel to it, so I decided to keep it. It doesn’t work but, as an object of curiosity, it fits the bill perfectly. It never ceases to amaze me how much it baffles the children visiting my office. Not one of them has ever correctly identified it as a phone without some prompting.

Such is the world in which we live: in less than a generation, technology has evolved so rapidly as to render previously commonplace, everyday objects totally meaningless and incomprehensible to young minds.

In fact, the internet is brimming with youthful vloggers, gleefully pondering ghetto blasters and cassette tapes, trying to fathom what these ancient relics could possibly be. All this only serves to remind the rest of us how truly past it we have quickly become, bringing us face to face with the collective bewilderment of Generation Z in all its digital glory.

This perception of the tech-savvy generation is an interesting one. A social narrative bursting with iPhone-toting tots and whizz-kid coders positions children and young people as digital experts, deftly swiping and clicking rings around their elders as they use their intuition and native skills to explore and conquer this brave new digital world.

The reality is not so rosy. What children experience online is, in fact, a world built overwhelmingly with adult users in mind. Almost every digital interaction is designed explicitly to entice the user to repeat the interaction. From scrolling through page after page of summer fashions to attempting just one more level of a puzzle app, the cycle of try, repeat, try, repeat is unending. Social media platforms exploit this to an exceptionally high degree of sophistication, so it is little wonder that this is where the vast majority of digital users spend most of their time. In fact, most digital constructs, including social media sites, are designed specifically with this addictive cycle in mind and, therefore, are suitable only for users who have some experience of the highs and lows of social interaction, a clear sense of self and the ability to realistically predict the consequences of their actions.

For children and young people who are at the beginning stages of these developmental milestones, the digital world is full of trapdoors to public humiliation, intimidation and exploitation. In posting a picture online, a young user “may be doing his or her developmental best by trying out a new social interaction” but instead of experimenting within the safety of a familial or social group, as would have been the case 20 years ago, he or she is seeking approval from a much wider and largely unknown audience. Rehearsing social interaction in this very public arena can lead to devastating consequences for children, with permanent evidence of an ill-judged tweet or selfie faux pas only ever a screenshot away.

Relentless pressure

In this attention economy, as you might call it, where the magnetic appeal of generating “likes” and “retweets” holds sway across virtually every platform, and with precious little else to divert their digital attention, our children are particularly poorly served. Far from being the most competent users, children are on the lowest rung of the digital opportunity ladder, spending the greatest periods of time in the fewest number of places. Combine this with the crushingly relentless pressure to maintain an achingly cool, flawless online persona, and the addictive nature of digital interaction, and it is no wonder that many children and young people claim they would find it difficult to live life without their devices.

So, when running the gauntlet between seeking approval from strangers on one side and avoiding total public humiliation on the other is the reality for children every day, what are schools doing to support young users to stay on their digital feet? Surprisingly little. Children and young people report outdated knowledge (when were you last in a “chatroom”?) and risk-averse, fear-based messages that don’t speak to their lived experience of the digital world.

It seems that even with growing research and evidence to the contrary, we still assume that, with a few dire warnings to guide them, children can cope alone with the perils of the internet, despite their developmental immaturity and their low status in adult-orientated online environments. We continue to peddle outmoded, one-off lessons about cyber cafés and Myspace profiles (yes, really) in spite of the fact that, for today’s children and young people, their online presence matters as much as their offline one. They do not readily see their online and offline worlds as distinct, and are used to communicating freely across both, often at the same time.

This flow is uniquely personal and puts tremendous responsibility on their young shoulders to either sink or swim. Perhaps this is why, then, children and young people identify personal resilience as the most important factor needed to improve online safety but, crucially, recognise that they need support to build it.

In a bid to redirect educators to the need for higher quality, more relevant provision, Digital Schools, endorsed by Education Scotland, launched its new Cyber Resilience and Internet Safety badge in February this year. A standalone plaudit for primary and secondary schools, and the first of its kind in Scotland, the badge will require schools to demonstrate how they seek to help pupils safely navigate their digital world, day in, day out. Alongside technologies benchmarks published in 2017 that posit cyber resilience as a core strand of digital literacy, this shift of focus from sporadic, doom-laden internet safety messages towards a more holistic view marks a new chapter in our understanding of how children engage with their digital world.

Supporting young users to survive and thrive online should be the core business of schools and the development of those skills should permeate the whole curriculum, just as the online world permeates the offline one for our children.

Resilient users

It is true that actively encouraging digital exploration will lead to children taking more risks online. Opening a conversation and taking a curious, rather than a fearful, stance when young people describe their digital experiences grants them much-needed agency and, as educators, we would do well to sit down and listen closely when this more sensitive approach means they allow us a glimpse into their digital world.

Helping children to feel in control of their digital presence is a hugely important first step towards building resilient, thoughtful users. Explicitly teaching and modelling positive digital behaviour, from why passwords matter to seeking consent before posting a picture, helps them to be digitally literate. And it is well documented that digitally literate children take more risks yet come to less harm.

Exploring the digital playground may lead to the occasional tumble from the virtual swings, but resilient users will be able to get back up, learn from it and move on, wiser for the experience.

Children, families and schools need access to a high-quality curriculum that promotes digital citizenship, literacy and agency at every age and stage. At Kingsland Primary School, in the Scottish Borders, we will be piloting a learning pathway in the new school year that seeks to do just that, making links to that other often poorly served branch of the digital tree, computing science. We’ll be teaching core technical skills to open up new digital realms in programming, and encouraging children to generate their own content, which widens the horizon for children, ushering them towards new, creative spaces to explore and shape.

We need to run a steadily dripping tap of carefully modelled digital behaviour and curiosity when it comes to why we do what we do online, which will help to reshape attitudes and build resilience. The implications of all this for staff training are significant - and so it becomes all the more essential that children and teachers learn together and communicate about what being a digital user is really like. In this way, we can start to build internet safety messages that are co-authored, fit for purpose and relevant. In short, we will begin to equip our children to know what to do when they don’t know what to do. Will it happen overnight? Of course not. Will it be worth it? Absolutely.

Technology continues to bound along at unchecked speed. Before long, today’s “latest gadget” will be as irrelevant and incomprehensible as my beloved old dial-up telephone. Apps and platforms will come and go, a flash in the pan, soon forgotten. But a set of digital behaviours, learned and earned through shared experience, and a toolkit of technical skills that open digital doors at every turn? Those will last a lifetime - and our pupils will thank us for them.

Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30

This article originally appeared in the 16 August 2019 issue under the headline “A digital code to live by”

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