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In a recent New York Times column, Maureen Dowd states: "We live in a world awash in unreliable narrators." She goes on to explain:

Officials at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital were unreliable narrators on Ebola. The Internet is bristling with unreliable narrators who prefer their takes to the truth. The unsavory husband and wife in the thriller "Gone Girl" are such chillingly unreliable narrators that they easily beat out the undead unreliable narrator, Dracula, at the box office. And let's not even start on Fox News.

Given this reality, if in fact one subscribes to it, then how should we approach working with teenagers to build reliable narrators and truth finders?

Savvy Consumers

One of the key skills needed for success today is the ability to discern reliable information online. Can teens do this?

Yes, if they care enough about what they are looking for.

For example, teens who are gamers, whether playing Call of Duty or FIFA, know how to find the best players online, watch YouTube videos to break down, analyze and understand how these gamers have achieved mastery, and then apply these lessons to their own gaming experience. Teens don't waste their time trying to find bad gamers online. They want to find the best, they know what the best look like, and they seek to model the best.

Or, take music. Teens know what they like to listen to, they know where to find it (again, often on YouTube), and they like to share what they find with their friends.

Or, take online shopping. Teens are major online consumers, and they take the time to comb through the internet to find the best deals, read online reviews, weigh different opinions and points of view, and then make a deliberate, considered purchase.

There are reliable narrators out there, and in some areas, teens are quite adept at finding these skilled narrators.

What happens when we shift to school? Do teens know how to find historical truth for a history paper? Can they figure out if a site on biology is providing the most accurate information? Do they know a quality Khan Academy video when they watch it?

On this, the answer is a bit murkier. Teens can easily misstep in the area of finding quality academic content, because they are new to the topic and have not yet established the level of expertise that they already have in the areas of gaming, shopping, and music. This is where teachers are key.

Wicked Problems

Teachers are the guides with the content expertise, passion, and drive to scaffold online learning spaces with teens. And by inserting wicked problems for teens to solve, teachers can grab teen interest and increase engagement. According to Jon Kolko:

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

These problems promote:

  • Transdisciplinary, cross-cutting learning concepts
  • The use of technology as a tool to help find solutions
  • Mentorship with experts in the field
  • Collaboration
  • Time (maybe the most difficult aspect of designing these types of learning experiences for teens).

By their nature, these wicked problems demand that teens find and engage with reliable narrators. This is where teachers come into play, co-designing and co-constructing the wicked problem narrative.

And these wicked problems invite analytical and critical thinking to figure out exactly what the problem is demanding. To quote Albert Einstein, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions." In other words, the key is to help kids stay in the question, be patient and precise, and avoid jumping to solutions -- and to help students figure out how to use all of the resources the wicked problem demands that they use.

Reliable Narrators

We don't need to throw our hands up in the air and bemoan the state of "unreliable narrators" out there, as Maureen Dowd has done. Instead, we can claim the narrators and engage students in the important process of ownership, passion, solution finding, teamwork, and the notion that teens are the change makers of today. We know that teens have the capacity, and our challenge is taking their burgeoning skills to identify quality online content, and channeling it into endeavors with social purpose and social responsibility.

Game on!

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