George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

2016: The Awesome, the Painful, and the Viral

The past year saw ideas both good and bad spreading ever faster. How can we make our best teaching ideas go viral?

December 23, 2016

History tells us that battles often continue to be fought after the end of a war. Did you know there were six Civil War battles fought after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox? In a similar manner, Hiroo Onoda defended the island of Lubang in the Philippines for 30 years after World War II ended. Assuming that leaflets he found announcing the end of the war were just propaganda, Onoda fought on. Eventually, he surrendered when his old commanding officer, then a bookseller, came back to the island to relieve him of duty officially.

In the final analysis, wars carried on because we didn’t have an easy way for news to travel. Previously, it took time for news to spread, but this is not the case anymore.

Ironically, for all of our instantaneous global communication technologies, it appears that best practices in teaching are actually staying the same faster than ever. Best practices are traveling like the leaflets drifting down on Onoda, with many educators seemingly not believing what is written.

What We “Like”

Today a teenager flips a bottle in a talent show, and tomorrow he’s the next viral sensation. Today a mom gets a Chewbacca mask and laughs at herself. Tomorrow that same mom is on a late night TV show with some of the most famous people in Hollywood.

What drives all of this fame? And how are these any different from “Do the Harlem Shake,” “Gangnam Style,” or that gold and white/black and blue dress?

Fame today is nothing more than the multiple millions of “likes”—yours and mine—that propel people to stardom. But you really have to wonder: Are we liking things that really matter? Just two years after the Ice Bucket Challenge, we now have groundbreaking research to push us toward a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Were there any trends for social good in 2016?

Things stay the same faster than ever. More funny videos, faster.

Pain Goes Viral

At the same time, we saw the rise of the viral protest this year: Something happens in one city to trigger a protest in another, and another, and another. To cope with the heartbreak of senseless death, possible discrimination, or needless violence, we feel helpless and want to do something. So we forward on these horrific stories to our networks, which then do the same to theirs.

Similarly, the superhero funeral epitomizes the senselessness of much of the violence in the U.S. This was the tragic funeral of a precious 6 year old named Jacob Hall, who was shot at school. He was laid to rest dressed in a little Batman costume, and all the mourners dressed as superheroes for his send-off. I watched the video, as did millions of others, sobbing at this and the other tragedies of 2016.

On the negative side, pain goes viral, too.

Things stay the same faster than ever. More pain, faster.

The Election

Speaking of controversy, perhaps the hottest viral trend of 2016 was the U.S. presidential election. Each political party had its memes and rants. And certainly when society rolls with rancor, we have to deal with it in our classrooms.

As a teacher of a diverse group of students, I have students who supported each presidential candidate. For this reason, I intentionally keep my political views to myself. However, not all educators feel this way. Some educators share their political views and those of their students far and wide.

Remarkably, we saw hatred, injustice, unkindness, and lies go viral in many ways. But as a teacher, I must ask myself yet again—how can we see love, justice, kindness, and truth go viral?

Things stay the same faster than ever. More rancor, faster.

The Viral Lesson Plan

I know that many teachers are too busy to care about these big trends. But at a minimum, every teacher should care about classroom best practices. Those should be like gold. If I find something bottle-flippingly awesome in my classroom, shouldn’t I share it with my networks? Shouldn’t it go viral just as fast and far as Chewbacca mom?

To be fair, lesson plans are being shared in some places. There are bubbling communities of educators at Teachers Pay Teachers and on many OER websites, where people are excitedly sharing and iterating on great educational resources. Amazon even entered the space earlier this year. Although many rush to condemn these efforts, and mainstream education media generally ignores them, I predict that one day education best practices will go viral.

Things stay the same faster than ever. With a few exceptions (noted above), we’re seeing more irrelevant materials, faster.

Have Buzzword, Will Travel

Quality teaching may not be viral, but buzzwords sure are. These words spread from conference to Twitter to the next conference like lightning. Here are the hot buzzwords from the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education conference in Denver:

  • Formative assessment
  • Blended learning
  • Sketchnoting
  • Makerspaces
  • Wearables

So these are the trendy terms (for now). We must ask ourselves: What about the teaching practices that make a real difference with students? It is one thing to learn a word—it is another thing entirely for an educator to learn a craft.

Things stay the same faster than ever. More buzzwords, faster.

Filter Bubbles: The Ties That Blind

There is a meta-trend that has enabled every other aforementioned viral trend, and that is the filter bubble. As a matter of fact, we should look no further than the filter bubble to understand why good and important things in education aren’t rising to the top.

Most sites personalize your experience as you use them. Social media sites are now designed to give you more of what you want. What you like. Things you will click. While a filter bubble sounds great because you don’t have to scroll past stuff you don’t like, in reality, it can deceive you into thinking that everyone is like you.

In order to burst the filter bubble, we have to “friend” and talk to people who are different from us. We have to read things different from what we read yesterday. We can also clear our Google search history. Although it is hard, we can and should break out of the bubble.

At the end of 2016, the case has never been stronger for a good personal learning network (PLN) composed of real people with different perspectives who can help us break out of our filter bubbles.

But until more people break their filter bubbles, things stay the same faster than ever. More things you like, faster.

How Can We Become Better, Faster?

As teachers, we must decide that we will never stop learning.

Unfortunately, in spite of the great promise of social media as an instantaneous global communication platform, some of us act like Hiroo Onoda, fighting a war that was over 30 years ago. The internet is here, and it can be used for good or bad, yet many are still holed up on their own little island, unaware that everything changed. They save their clicks for the meme du jour like bottle flippers instead of promoting people who can flip education on its head.

In the end, you and I are part of a bigger picture. And to make 2017 better, we have to understand exactly what happened in 2016, because we can do better. Educators who care, share. And we share stuff that matters.

We can improve, faster.

A Viral Action Plan for Good in Education

Given the points I’ve made, here’s how we can shape our profession for the good in 2017:

  1. Commit ourselves to learning and leveling up. We cannot be complacent. I innovate like a turtle, slow and steady. We can all make tiny steps forward in progress. It is better to do better slower than to stay the same faster.
  2. Share and talk about things that matter in the classroom. “Like” the things that matter. Share them, tweet them, and snap them. We can make a difference when we start liking stuff that matters.
  3. Break our filter bubbles and teach others how to do it too. We have to be brave enough to love those we do not understand. We have to be strong enough to listen to ideas different from our own. And we must be determined enough to circumvent the efforts of those who may only give us what they think we want to hear. Let’s commit to burst bubbles for the good of our students and our profession.
  4. Redirect our pain into our teaching. When we see injustice, turn around and teach our students to be just. When we see things that aren’t right about our world, teach the right thing anyway. Remember that sometimes the most important things we teach aren’t in the textbook.

For if we do not wake up and burst some bubbles, we’ll stay stuck on our islands and fight a war that doesn’t exist. We can get off the island when we’re ready to harness the tools of our new world for good. It is time to go viral—better and faster.

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