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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Digital Lives of Teens: Revolutionary "Bliss"?

Jeff Bliss speaks up in his Duncanville classroom.

English novelist and playwright E.G. Bulwer-Lytton once wrote, "A revolution is a transfer of power." We might just be on the brink of a revolution when it comes to kids, technology and schools.

High school student Jeff Bliss' recent, public and viral rant about his teacher has unsettled the minds and hearts of every teacher working with kids right now. At the drop of a hat, a student can go public with dissatisfaction or disgruntlement, unleashing a torrent of response and reprisal.

The sophomore from Duncanville, Texas blasted his world history teacher after being sent out of class. In his widely distributed video rant, he voices: "If you would just get up and teach them instead of handing them a freaking packet, yo. There's kids in here who don't learn like that, they need to learn face-to-face."

Consumers in Control

Bliss has touched on a seismic shift happening in schools across the country. Kids are wanting and demanding more from their education, and their expectations are rubbing up against the traditional power structure of schools, with the teacher in control and the student as a compliant consumer of learning.

The challenge for schools right now is that consumer culture places kids in control. Douglas Rushkoff, in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, shares a conversation he had with Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi. Roberts explains the power that young consumers have:

The consumer is now in total control [. . .] They're so empowered at every age. They are not cynical; they are completely empowered; they're autonomous. All the fear is gone and all the control is passed over to the consumer.

(See page 211 for the full quote.)

Bliss taps into this new dynamic. He is empowered, autonomous, and he has no fear. And he is attempting to wrest control away from the teacher.

When the line between outside and inside of school grows blurred, tension bubbles to the surface and, with the ease and access of a vast Internet audience, kids can voice their demands, as Bliss has done. What's unnerving for educators is that student dissatisfaction or questioning of the way things are done can so quickly become public. Schools then find themselves in reactive mode and on the defensive, instead of leaning into the changes that are already happening and trying to figure out ways to understand these shifting social changes catalyzed by the explosive growth of technology.

Students live in a consumer culture outside of school, mixing, mashing and sharing content, whether it's video or music, and they have control and choice, through personalization and self-expression on Instagram or Tumblr.

And they have the advantage that in many cases their parents have never been on Instagram or Tumblr, much less understanding what these sites are or can do. Teens' social lives are distributed and flat, and then these same kids enter schools where the social structure is firmly established and rooted in clearly defined, hierarchical roles where the teacher holds power over the student.

But, as Bliss' video hints, this social structure is changing, and that is confusing for schools. The firm ground that educators have stood on for decades is loosening and coming undone with technology, especially as students are demanding more voice and control, as Bliss captures. Kids are pushing for a transfer of power away from having adults dictate the learning mode in the classroom. A revolution is afoot.

Running the Asylum

How can schools understand this revolutionary moment? What is the new social structure as technology finds its way into the hallways, classrooms and lunchrooms?

For starters, schools can draw on the changes in the workplace, which trickle down into universities and school systems. Kevin Kuske, Skipper and Chief Brand Anthropologist for Turnstone, writes in Business News Daily about "the networked age of distributed work." Bliss' statement "[t]here's kids in here who don't learn like that" is essentially a call for "distributed work," or the idea of decentralization of learning, and opening up to the idea that one size does not fit all and there is room for personalization of learning.

Kuske writes: "Co-creation is ascending as the new dominant model of innovation, creativity and differentiation." He outlines several key components of this new model that are relevant for schools: "choice and control, unchain the user and let the inmates run the asylum."

What Bliss is demanding is a voice in his own learning. He wants choice and control and to be able to tell his teacher how he best learns, which clearly is not through a packet. Bliss wants to be "unchained," free to move. And the most daunting thought of all for schools, Bliss wants to "run the asylum."

Kuske explains the idea of the inmates running the asylum: "Recognize that not everyone creates or shares the same way -- some go digital, some love doodling, some love Legos, make sure spaces are available everywhere to support the lightening inspiration."

Viewed in this way, setting students free to roam and learn through different media and modes opens up possibility and is less daunting than flattening the entire social structure of schools. But the social structure is changing, and knowledge is being distributed. Bliss is essentially calling for co-creation. He wants to be heard and valued as a learner.

While his choice of expression, coupled with the fallout for his teacher and school, can and should be addressed, some of his message has value and needs to be reckoned with. He is tapping into a revolutionary moment where a transfer of power is beginning to happen.

The Digital Lives of Teens: Part 1 (Spring 2013)
How social media and instant data access have shaped teen life, and how adults can work with this reality

Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Corey Topf's picture
Corey Topf
Innovation Academy Coordinator

If you look in the picture above, the student on the left has his head down and is either 1) sleeping or 2) bored out of his mind.

He's sadly unaware that a viral video is being made in his presence, and the teacher has numbed him to such an extent that he's oblivious to it.

So, the real questions are: at what age do we start to trust that kids can learn on their own with only a little guidance from the teacher? At what age do we start allowing students to design their own courses and the content they wish to study?

I say as early as possible!

A 9th grader at my school in Lima is developing his own photography course for next year, and he told me about the six units of study he wanted to design and pursue.

He's empowered. He's excited. And I'm guessing he'll learn quite a bit more than that kid sleeping.

We must set our students free, and once they awake to what they're capable of, we should be there merely to guide them in any way we can!

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center
Facilitator 2014

Thanks for your enlightening point of view on this Matt. I think you are spot on! It sure matches my experience in the classroom.

One of your underlying points has to do with student voice and choice, along with creativity, critical thinking and collaboration, among other aspects. These lie at the heart of Project-based Learning, which is why I am so sold out on teaching and learning in the PBL mode. As I have implemented PBL in my classes, I have found my students more engaged, more enthusiastic, more personally satisfied because they do have opportunities to be creative and exercise choices. I still have work to do to improve, but it is well worthwhile!

Edutopia and Buck (bie.org) are two great places to get started on PBL. If you are a World Language teacher, like me, see the WL Forum here on Edutopia and let's get acquainted!

Jeff's viral video is a call to all teacher, everywhere, that the paradigm has indeed shifted, and that we teachers need to shift as well. The thing is, we are not alone in making the shift! As they say, "shift happens" so we better change gears. Let's invite our students into the discourse about how to make the shift happen in a meaningful way for them as well as for us.

Thanks again, Matt!

Best wishes,
Don

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Jeff Bliss represents the Millennial with the compromised brain and the bloated sense of self-esteem that makes proven traditional pedagogical methods seem ineffective. He likely has such a short attention span from playing too many video games that extended study requirements are nearly impossible for him to complete. From a lifetime of being reminded how special he is, he believes he exists on the same plane as adults without ever accomplishing anything significant or "paying his dues." Many of you so-called "progressives" in the socio-educational disciplines have created this monster in your attempt to level any or all playing fields, real or imagined. Sad that your only antidote to deal with these mutants is to relinquish authority and allow them to run amok with "projects" that require little time for a teacher to evaluate. PBL projects are far too subjective because in a PBL project, 2 + 2 doesn't have to equal 4. If a student "feels" as if 2 + 2 = 5 is correct, he/she will get an "A," because the new type of non-judgmental teacher aligns with a values-neutral base.

By the way, folks, you trust a kid when they grow up and exhibit some adult level responsibility and prove themselves.

Listening to the whiny rant of Jeff Bliss, he has a long,long, long way to go before impressing me enough to grant real responsibility. In the meantime, he needs to simply sit down, zip his yap, and pay attention to his betters.

But then, since we now exist in a society of lowered expectations, in the minds of certain educators, Jeff Bliss represents some sort of enlightened visionary and a force to be reckoned with, hmm?

Ali's picture

I think it's still possible to distinguish oneself as the adult in the room if one provides good avenues for feedback, like the feedback submission boxes of two of my math colleagues and the feedback question on my homework submit form. I got to iron out some potential student grumbles over comments that were submitted that way last year.

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