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April 16, 2009
Why Johnny Can’t Tweet
Should Social Media Be Taught In Primary School?
Interesting news comes out of the UK about a possible change in primary school educational priorities, shifting attention and resources from subjects like history and math in favor of what might be called Web 2.0 1.0. Britain’s Daily Mail reported March 25 “primary schools could ditch traditional lessons in favour of teaching children how to use social networking sites such as Twitter,” under a proposal made by “Sir Jim Rose following a request from Children's Secretary Ed Balls.”
The Mail goes on to report that a leaked draft of the proposal was branded in some circles as “dangerous,” “and an assault on knowledge, while critics said children were accustomed to using modern media at home and needed no encouragement at school.”
Living in the Post-Fact Era
We are living in what some have referred to as the “post-fact era.” This has been hard for me to deal with. I’m a prescriptive person. I believe there are rules, and things that are “known.” If nothing can be “known to be true,” then what is the point of learning anything? In truth, no fact is irreversibly, unquestionably true.
In the Woody Allen film Sleeper, a test subject awakens to a future in which scientists have determined that cheeseburgers and milkshakes are the healthiest of all foods. How far fetched is this? The earth turned out not to be flat and not at the center of the universe. While Einstein is known for for defining the photoelectric effect, he disproved more of his own theories and those of others in his lifetime than he ever proved. The scientific method can never prove anything; it can only fail to disprove it.
There is more than one way to teach even what we think of as fact-based subjects. Western medicine and Chinese herbal medicine, for example, often “teach” two opposing views, but both have proven equally valid. More importantly, researchers have found there is no need to wait an hour after eating before going swimming.
What Is the “Best” Kind of Curriculum?
This Post-Fact Era is challenging basic assumptions about educational methods and curriculum. But let us not act hastily by assuming the solution is to teach the latest online fad in schools.
One thing we should be vigilant against is the dumbing down of curriculum, which means, no surprise, the dumbing down of students and of the population. Post-modern educators might argue that instead of spoon feeding students a standard, classical curriculum, that education should instead prepare students to succeed “in real life.” What good does it do, some educators ask, to tell children about the Battle of Hastings if it does not prepare them to enter the workforce? How will the Iliad and the Odyssey help them balance their checking accounts?
But if we teach tools instead of concepts and critical thinking, we risk producing a nation of technically proficient typists and bookkeepers, and not the philosophers, statesmen, and artists who can lead and inspire us to greatness.
What Things Inherently Don’t Need To Be Taught in School?
Many things are either so intuitive that they can be largely self-taught, or take five minutes of instruction and years of practice (like riding a bike or tying a shoe), that they have no place in school.
In 1984, my first Macintosh computer arrived. I had never seen a Mac, a mouse, or a graphical user interface before. I opened the box, set up the computer and was writing in MacWrite and painting in MacPaint in minutes. Fast forward, and I watched as my daughter recently mastered Firefox and MS Word in about 10 minutes each.
Some things are such a part of daily life that they also do not require valuable classroom time. As the Daily Mail points out, there’s enough exposure outside of the classroom to the use of online tools that formal classroom education is superfluous.
Teach The Fundamentals at Home
My use in the previous paragraph of the verb “to watch” is quite deliberate. I believe children under a certain age should be closely supervised when using the internet. That’s not going to happen with teacher/student ratios of 25-to-1.
The most important aspects of using social media are those that cannot and should not be left entirely to the schools, like common sense, privacy, avoiding sexual predators, and the importance of acting morally and ethically. A solid foundation in these life skills will apply no matter what changes occur in communications. These lessons could be applied 30 years ago to the use of a Compuserve bulletin board, or five years ago to AOL chat or instant messenger, and apply equally to Facebook and Twitter today, and to whatever comes along in 2015.
Is There a Place for Social Media Education?
In my book, SocialCorp, I argue that social media proficiency is the next required business skill, but people will perfect these skills in late high school and in university and adult education programs designed to address the use of social media social within a certain profession.
Seth Porges asks, for example, in an April 4 piece in Editor and Publisher, Are J-Schools Today Taking the Wrong Approach? “If I was a J-school dean, I'd offer classes on social media and blog outreach (something that is severely lacking from most J-schools), and teach students how to expand and adapt existing print stories for the Web,” Porges writes, and I agree. That is exactly the right place to teach social media.
My Plan
Here’s my plan for educating future generations of social media users:
  1. Teach the educational basics, like history, mathematics, geography, and science in primary school, to provide a foundation for lifelong context and critical thinking.
  2. Don’t waste the educational opportunities of early learning, or valuable classroom time and resources, teaching things that can be quickly and easily learned elsewhere.
  3. Leave most of the responsibility for lessons of morality, civility, protection of personal privacy, and accountability, to families, not educators.
  4. To a certain age, allow children to learn the basics of computer and Internet use at home, and outside the classroom, under the watchful eyes of parents.
For otherwise, we will be training a world of bloggers and tweeters, which may some day be as useful as a world of telex and fax machine operators. Which are not skills I would want to have as we endure a global financial crisis.
If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to add me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks!

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Joel Postman is the principal of Socialized, a consultancy that helps companies make effective use of social media in corporate communications, marketing and public relations. He's the author of SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate, a handbook designed to help corporate communicators and executives understand how to successfully adopt social business strategies in large companies. Prior to founding Socialized, he was EVP of Emerging Media at Eastwick Communications a Silicon Valley public relations firm, and before that, he has a decade of Fortune 500 corporate communications experience, including leadership roles in executive and internal communications at Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

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