Glow in the power of social networking

19th September 2008 at 01:00
Recently, I watched a video of a talk given by the author Clay Shirky, where he used the term "cognitive surplus" to describe the amount of time we have which is not used up by our work and therefore available for thinking.

Recently, I watched a video of a talk given by the author Clay Shirky, where he used the term "cognitive surplus" to describe the amount of time we have which is not used up by our work and therefore available for thinking.

The argument goes that, since the end of the Second World War, more and more people have increased amounts of leisure time and they are invariably drawn to methods of social invention devised to control how this time is used. The late 20th-century instrument of mass control, is of course, television. Shirky argues that this is quite an unproductive use of time. When you consider that, in the United States every weekend, 100 million hours are spent watching television adverts, you can see his point (this is twice the amount of time it took to create every page in Wikipedia - every weekend).

The story used to illustrate this in the video is quite profound. It's a scenario we can picture easily. A parent is sitting with a child watching a DVD when all of a sudden the child jumps off the sofa and disappears behind the TV set. When the parent goes and investigates, the child is found moving the wires behind the set as if searching for something.

When questioned as to why, she asks: "Mummy, where's the mouse?" Surely a medium which is targeted at us but does not include us should be prompting the question: "Is this actually worth sitting through?"

For the first time since the advent of television, this current generation of kids is actually watching less each week than the one before. Maybe they have wised up to this waste of their personal cognitive surplus and made the shift towards more productive activity.

What are they doing with this time then? This can be answered with two words: social networking. Our students increasingly spend more of their time producing, sharing and consuming this game and web 2.0-based content - true creative digital natives indeed.

So should we as educators not be harnessing this creativity by adapting our own classroom practices to suit their preferred media, instead of stifling it with outdated and increasingly irrelevant pedagogies?

This is why I have such high hopes for Glow. I've been using it in my classroom for nearly a year and have seen some outstanding gains in attainment from pupils using it (my research has been published by GTC Scotland). I've tried to adopt an approach to using Glow which harnesses the power of the new media with the natural creativity of our young people, and it's already paying off big style.

The kids love it. They create, share, collaborate and evaluate their own work and that of their classmates. It might not be the most sophisticated set of ICT tools and won't satisfy the technophiles but, for classroom teachers, it's a great leap forward into the world our pupils already inhabit.

These creative kids are not afraid of getting it wrong. They know that, sooner or later, an idea will work and so they persevere. Do we stifle these creative qualities in schools by squashing individuality for the perceived common goal of academic success?

Our young people are showing us the way forward by more effective use of their cognitive surpluses. We have to follow if we want to engineer an education system which is fit for purpose - fit for their purpose.

Jaye Richards, teaches biology and psychology at Cathkin High, Cambuslang.

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