A short time ago I was teaching a critical thinking class for 17 to 21-year-old Singaporean students.
The students arriving for the first day of class came into the room as 25 individual islands, totally focused on the phones in their hands.
Introducing myself, I asked if there were any questions regarding the syllabus or actual content. This was met with silence. Asking the class for their full attention I told them I was going to outline what was required of them to receive an “A”. Immediately I had their full attention. Also, I had discovered that this group of students was motivated by good grades.
Outlining the class expectations, I told them that they would be working together in teams of five to solve complex and authentic problems. They would be learning how to engage in research. They would learn how to determine valid and reliable sources and evidence. They would develop an argument and then defend it to the other groups of students. In simple words, I told them that to pass the class, they would have to engage in social exchange with their classmates and with me.
Over the next few weeks, I helped my students discover for themselves the pros and cons of growing up in a culture of social networking. While rarely being asked to engage in actual exchange with each other, these skills had not been developed. Because they had ready accessibility to “information”, they had not spent much time actually learning and retaining knowledge. Yes, they knew how to memorize facts for an exam, but if asked to apply any of their learning, they were left paralyzed.
While my students held the illusion that they could multi-task, checking their social media sites, while trying to engage in research, they were being brought face to face with the realization that our brains are not hard-wired to be able to do this. Slowly, each member of the class was understanding that they were unable to concentrate on the task at hand while remaining connected to social media. Because they were required to work in teams, they were realizing that they had never learned how to socialize in person. Because social media lacked body signals and other nonverbal communication, they had not learned how to pay attention to another’s tone or inflection. They were admitting to themselves and others that they did not know how to skillfully communicate face to face with each other.
Six weeks into the course my students admitted that they had accepted information found online, believing it without question. Having learned research skills, they were astonished that they had never required evidence. They were learning to question themselves and others. They were demanding evidence for positions held.
Towards the end of the term, I had the students research what things potential employees looked for in the people they hired. They were finding out that potential employers often investigated the social networking profiles of their applicants. In response, the students started critically filtering their posts. Reviewing their past, lax postings they began to seriously evaluate their sites with their newfound awareness.
There were other problems I required my students to research. They researched the consequences of spending large amounts of time on social media and how this impacted their physical health and well-being. As they researched they found that students who spent large amounts of time on social media sites complained of significantly more stomach aches, sleeping problems, anxiety, and depression. The evidence they were unearthing was overwhelming.
Of greater concern, they found strong evidence that young people, who were spending large amounts of time on social media displayed more narcissistic behaviors along with other psychological disorders, including aggressive tendencies.
While we may not have the amount of time or the same structure that allowed my class to construct their own understandings of some of the anti-social consequences of social media, we can still encourage our students and client’s to participate in solving some of their own problems. As they are encouraged to use their intellects, they can be helped to discover their own important role in finding their own solutions.
For far too many of our students and client’s, social media has not only changed what they do, but it has also changed who they are. While they may have the illusion of being connected, they often walk among the crowd as individual islands in the vast ocean of social media.
Tutor & Mentor