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Home > Teaching and Curriculum > Technology and youth: A remix that is changing the education landscape > Video transcripts

Text of video 1

I think the main message of my work is that the human being is a tool user. We use tools to interact with the world. We use tools of language to interact with each other. And through that tool use, we are transformed, both in our experience and our own understanding.

Now here's a picture of a cell phone. The cell phone is an amazing piece of technology. It isn't just a landline without wires. It has totally changed how young people interact with each other, how adults interact with each other. It's also, of course, changed what we can do with our environment. We can photograph it. We can transmit the information all over the world. We can now, of course, access the Internet. It's an incredible tool which is not just convenient. It actually changes how we think, how we interact, and the kind of skills and competencies that we need to do that interacting.

Now in thinking about the human being as tool user, we're actually thinking something else. We're realizing that actually we have a model about what people are like, how people function. That model's often a metaphor. Tool user is a metaphor. And as educators, we need to be aware of what those models are.

One of the dominant models in education and in cognitive psychology and other areas for a long time has been that the human being is a problem solver. Now what is a problem solver? A problem solver is a person who usually by themselves addresses the problem, struggles with it, uses logic and other methods, and comes to a conclusion, all by yourself, inside your own head.

This is useful. It has its advantages. But the tool user goes beyond that. It says not only is it inside my head, but it's through the tool that I have that I access, interact with, and indeed resolve the problem. But you also do this with other people. The problem solver model tends to assume that we're isolated individuals, working inside our own heads, contemplating the problem. The great medical artist, Vesalius, represented this rather well in his very witty picture of the skeleton contemplating the skull. So here we have a model of a problem solver, a lone person, a single problem.

I've played around with this image and produced an image which shows two skeletons and two skulls. What does it look like? It looks as though they're talking to each other. It looks as though, discussing the problem. Suddenly the individual is not all by him or herself. The individual is in dialogue. And that idea of dialogue, operating socially, is a crucial element to taking tool use seriously.

Now traditionally in certain areas of psychology and social science and education, we have this model where the individual's at the bottom of a kind of heap of power. At the top, as you see on this picture, we've got society or culture. And we have an arrow of influence or power down to what we call usually the socializing agents, parents, teachers, even peers. And down at the bottom of the heap is the poor individual being shaped and framed by all these forces. The individual is passive.

The model I want to work with in my own work and the model I want to think about in education looks different. It's actually a triangle. Now here we see in the triangle, three points, the same three points as in the top-down model—society and culture, the individual interacting dialogically with others interpersonally, and the individual operating by themselves as an individual problem solver or tool user.

The point is, there aren't any arrows of direction here. The individual is continually in interaction with the culture, drawing on culture resources from media, images, metaphors, symbols, or just simply physically interacting with the world. And simultaneously, the individual's interacting with key other persons. It's a continual process of interaction through individual, individual to culture, and both ways round. It's a triangle without directions. It's a triangle which paints a total picture—the individual tool user, but operating at the same time collaboratively with others in a continual iterative process back and forth, the individual continually interacting, drawing upon culture, being influenced by culture, but also, in his or her own way, contributing to culture. It's a dynamic, dialogic, dialectical process.

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Text of video 2

My current interest in civic education has a long history. I began my graduate work looking at moral development in the Kohlbergian tradition. I then moved later into looking at peace activists and the moral dimensions of that political activism. And now I've become interested in what makes a good citizen and how the school can contribute to creating competent citizens in 21st Century.

And this is a process which is a whole school process. It isn't just a matter of individual teachers who might teach social studies or history. To create a competent citizen takes a whole school, basically. And the work that I've been doing has been focusing on the various dimensions of what a citizen is, not narrowly on voting behavior.

There's a huge moral panic in a number of countries about the fact that young people don't vote. It's not just in America. It's also in Europe. Young people's voting behavior has been declining over the last couple of decades, except of course last November when it picked up again. But whether that's a temporary blip or whether it's a more permanent change, we don't know yet.

The larger questions of civic education are, how do people become able to feel that they are competent, able to feel they can be efficacious, able to feel they can actually do something and have an effect? It's about agency. How do you get young people to have that sense of agency? It's also an identity. Being a good citizen, a competent citizen is about feeling that one is that kind of person. One is a person who is going to be effective, to take part, to participate, to help.

It's also about feeling that one has access to the cultural stories that make citizenship and participation important. If you're from a particular social group who are alienated or deprived, your response is quite likely to be much less positive than if you come from a background where, on the whole, things work for your social class or ethnic group.

I've been working on the idea that there are really three different dimensions to civic participation. There is the voting dimension. It's all about conventional participation—voting, taking part in party activities, collecting money, getting support for candidates, that kind of general conventional participation, those things that people are worrying about.

But also equally important is making one's voice heard. Making one's voice heard often means being involved in single issue politics. It's the kind of thing that young people get involved in when they get angry about something, they feel passionate about some issue like a vegetarian issue perhaps, or the rainforest or the war in Iraq. And that kind of single issue gets them involved. They want to do something. They want to be effective agents. So they collect petition signatures. They sometimes take part in demonstrations.

The third dimension is helping in the community. That didn't used to be seen as a civic participation activity. But the work of people like Robert Putnam, arguing that in fact activity in the community is a prerequisite for getting involved in more conventional participation, shows us that actually taking part in community action, helping in the community, helping groups who are underprivileged, is a way in to becoming aware of the larger social picture, a way into becoming able to take part, to be an active citizen. So those three dimensions seem to be important.

I explored these ideas with a representative sample of over a thousand young people in Britain, aged between eleven and twenty-one. We asked them about recent civic activities. We asked them about what concerned them in the social and political domain. We asked them about what a good citizen was. We asked them about various motivations that they had regarding getting involved.

About three-quarters of them had actually taken part in some kind of civic action in the last two years. We also found that the three types that I expected did emerge, and a fourth one also. We found young people who were involved in conventional participation, who want to vote in elections. But actually most of these young people in that group hadn't taken part in recent action. We found young people who really wanted to make their voices heard. They cared about making their voices heard as a principle. They also had made their voices heard in the last two years in various ways. They were often very concerned about single issues like the Iraq war or boycotting products they didn't approve of or protesting about various things in the social and political world.

The third group were those who'd been actively involved in the community. They'd been helping in the community, helping people who were in some way deprived or impoverished. They collected money for social causes. They cared passionately about helping in the community. They thought it was important part of being a good citizen. They were also a group who actually cared most about the environment. And they had participated in these activities in the last two years.

We also found a fourth group, which slightly surprised me. We called these active monitors. They hadn't been involved in recent action, though they expected to be involved in the future. But they were very active in talking about news and social issues and current affairs with their family and friends, and listened to the radio and reading newspapers and watching television. And they were very concerned to keep their attention on what was going on, and to be aware of what was happening in the world around them.

So we have these four groups emerging. One of the interesting findings of the study, one of the most powerful findings was that one question we asked predicted almost everything else. That one question was, “I am often upset by events in the news.” And that single item was the strongest predictor of action and also having a strong level of social concern on these various issues on which they might like to influence the government.

Now the implications of this for education are really quite considerable. We need to think, not only about providing young people with civic knowledge. That's important. We need to think about providing young people with the facility to give them a sense of agency, to make them feel they can be efficacious citizens, to get them involved practically in things that are within their domain, that they can actually do something and have an effect. We need to give the opportunity to act out being a citizen while they're still in high school.

Worrying about whether they'll vote in the long-term is not, I think, our primary concern as educators. They probably will if we make them feel that they're citizens now, not just citizens in waiting.

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Text of video 3

I think the word ‘competence’ is a very useful idea, very important in our contemporary world. Competence isn't about skill or not only just about skill. Competence is about adaptation. Being a competent person means that one can adapt and respond to changes in the world around. Also it means one can adapt and respond to continuity in the world around.

We live at a time of enormous social change. And one of the things that we need is the flexibility to respond to that. I've been thinking about competencies for a number of years. And I've come up with the idea that there are probably five. There may be more, but I'm working with five at the moment.

The first and perhaps the most important is managing ambiguity. The other four, as you can see, are agency responsibility, finding and sustaining community, managing emotion, and managing technological change. Managing ambiguity is something that we need because in part our culture has been very linear. A lot of the time we're told, “Stick to the point. Pursue the right answer. Don't get distracted.” In our contemporary world, that isn't enough. We're continually actually managing highly ambiguous situations.

This Escher picture is a classic. Look at it. As you look at it, do you find yourself focusing on the geese at the top who are clearly geese, or the fish at the bottom who are clearly fish? Do you move away from the uncertainty and uncomfortableness of the middle section where they're kind of fish/geese, geese/fish? Or do you like that middle section? Do you enjoy the ambiguity? Do you find it intriguing?

I think the issue I'm talking about in managing ambiguity is that tension between rushing to the clear, the concrete, and managing this ambiguous fuzzy area in the middle. And managing ambiguity is something we have to teach. Because we have to counter the story of a single linear solution. We have to equip kids not to be anxious when they encounter the fish and the geese in the messy section in the middle. We have to also help them to multitask. And multitasking is, by definition, managing ambiguity. This is something that I think is essential for 21st Century life.

The second competence I think I call agency and responsibility. This idea rests upon the assumption that if we are active agents interacting with our world, we have to feel able to be active agents. We have to be able to take responsibility and know what that means. Being an effective agent means being able to approach one's environment, social or physical, with a confidence that one actually will be able to deal with it. This can apply to purely practical things like going to a strange new city and managing the subway system. Or it can be a moral kind of competence, talking about, for example, intervening when you see a morally problematic situation, somebody hurting somebody. It's all about the same kind of thing, being an agent and taking responsibility, feeling, “The buck stops here. I must do something in this situation.”

The third competence that I want to talk about is finding and sustaining community. This is partly about managing friendship. It's partly about social skills. But actually today, it's much more about managing the various kinds of communities that we live in, managing community experience through technology. Increasingly, young people particularly are running their social lives, running their communities online. They're encountering strangers. They're encountering new people. They're encountering a multiplicity of people and also non-people in the virtual world. They're managing interactions through online communication through technology, managing dealing with strangers, dealing with new people about whom one knows very little, and doing it often in parallel, multiple activities at the same time, multitasking.

And managing community is partly about that multitasking of connecting and interacting. It's also, of course, about maintaining community, about maintaining links with people, making sure you do remember your best friend's birthday, that you don't forget that your grandmother is by herself this weekend, and of course recognizing also that one is part of a larger community, not just one's own private little world.

The fourth competence I've talk-- described as managing emotion. I won't deal with this in great detail at the moment. We can look it up later. But really it's about getting away from the idea that emotion and reason are separate.

Recent neuroscience, particularly the work of Antonio Damasio, shows us that reason and emotion are not separate. We use emotion when we reason and we use reason when we are experiencing emotion. His work shows that people who have brain damage such that they actually have lost their emotional skills, they're a bit like Mr. Spock in Star Trek, actually can't reason. They cannot come to conclusions. They can do immensely complicated logical arguments. They can do quite high levels of abstract reasoning. But they can't make decisions. They can't actually make their cognition work.

Affect emotion is an important part of our reasoning process. And teaching young people to manage reason and emotion and not to flip to one or the other is an important part of our education process.

The final competence I want to talk about is managing technological change. This isn't about keyboard skills, though they're important. It's about managing the consequences of technological developments. Technology has a powerful effect on society. It changes our social practices. It changes what we can do and with whom we can do it. When we have a new tool, we first use it for what we are already doing, just doing it a bit better. But gradually, the new tool changes the way we do things. It changes our social practices.

For example, cell phones are used for texting. The designers put texting into the system so they could maintain the system sort of behind the scenes, to keep the technology going. But young people have picked up on texting. And they're using texting to the exclusion in many cases of actually talking into their phones. They use texts to date, to drop people, to make social arrangements, to organize their lives. Texting has become a dominant form of communication because the technology allowed it. Again, the tool has changed how we interact.

I think the five competencies help us to think about what young people will need in education for the future. They help us to think about what's needed for adaptation to a world of change that we can't always predict. We tend to think of the future in terms of more of the same. We tend to think that the world in the future will be just like now with slightly more technology, more or less poverty, different fashions. In fact, looking at history, we see that social change is often much more like a knight's move, like that, a move which isn't linear, but goes off in odd directions, directions that completely change the nature of our world and our interaction with it, and the kind of tools that we need for effective adaptive interaction with that world.

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Text of video 4

I got involved in being part of a team who were advising the British government on how education might change in the next 25 years as a consequence of technological developments. This wasn't about what skills people would need; it was about rethinking the landscape of education.

My particular responsibility was around identity and community and civic education in the context of new technological developments. It's an astonishing fact that all the world's knowledge ever is accessible to every kid in their bedroom today, should they choose to seek that resource. The problem of course is that many of them don't.

Young people have become the agents of their own enculturation. They've become the agents of their own seeking of resources. How can we use this scene for educational purposes?

We need to think of education as bottom-up, cooperative, interactive. We need to look at where kids are in their relationship with the world. We need to say, what are they doing anyway? How can we think of it from the point of view of that perspective, a perspective which is cooperative rather than competitive, collaborative rather than isolated, and highly tuned to technology which is within the scope of everybody?

One of the things I think is going to be a victim of these developments, or perhaps ...(inaudible) a victim but a, thank heavens we can get rid of it, is individual assessment. We're struggling at the moment with the idea that the new technology creates potential plagiarism or even cheating. Those concepts apply to the individual lone problem solver model of learning. If we treat all learning as collaborative or most learning as collaborative, most pursuit of knowledge and understanding is collective and cooperative, then we will have to find ways of assessing the collective product rather than the individual product.

I had a really profound experience doing this report. On the one hand, my eyes were opened to the implications of education and the way that traditional conventional models of thinking about education and the teacher's role as basically top-down, conduit, essentially passive individual had to be replaced with a model where the teacher was a choreographer of bottom-up interactive relationships between children and each other, children and technology, children and the whole world of knowledge.

And at the same time as realizing that education has to be rethought was also the realization that it all fitted into the models I was using. It fit so well into thinking about the individual as an active tool user, the individual as an active tool user working with, interacting with others, teachers, parents, peers through media, through technology, with the culture.

So it was an exciting conclusion to feel that the model I had been thinking about, the tool user model, the tool user in the wider cultural context, is consistent with the kind of changes that I see that we need in education to take account of the world in which our kids already live.

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Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College