When Youth Own the Public Education Agenda

Posted by in News on Feb 12, 2012

When Youth Own the Public Education Agenda

When Youth Own the Public Education Agenda

Cultural anthropologist

Posted: 11/24/10

I’ve devoted my career to researching how young people take up new technologies like computers, mobile phones, and the Internet and make them their own.  If we pay attention to what young people do when they are socializing and having fun with these new media, it’s clear that they are both highly engaged and learning a great deal. For most young people, however,  this is about learning how to get along with their friends, what it takes to get a date, or how to get to the next level in Halo, and not the kinds of academic learning and civic engagement that schools are concerned with. As a parent and educator who is also an anthropologist committed to appreciating youth perspectives, I stand at the cusp of two different learning cultures–one that is about youth-driven social engagement and sharing, and the other that is embodied in educational institutions’ adult-driven agendas. My biggest challenge has been to find what it would take to get alignment between the energy that kids bring to video games, text messaging, and social network sites and the learning that parents and educators care about. I have been on a quest for examples of educational institutions and programs that can bridge this cultural divide, and I’d like to share an example that has come out of collaborations I have had with some of my colleagues in the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

Last month, I paid a visit to the YouMedia space in Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Library Centre in downtown Chicago. The space was teeming with teens sitting on bright comfy sofas, chatting and eating, playing Rock Band, mixing music, heads down in front of laptops, and getting feedback from digital media mentors. Check out spoken word artist and mentor Mike Hawkins freestyling if you want to sample what YouMedia has on tap. Unlike any other library experience I had growing up, YouMedia is loud, sociable, and hip — but it’s still all about the public mission of the library to serve as a point of access to culture, information, and the media of the day, staffed by smart guides to knowledge and literacy. Nichole Pinkard and Amy Eshleman, who oversee the site, took me aside to explain that over a hundred teens come through the space every day to check out laptops, make media, read books, engage in workshops and special projects, or just hang out with friends in a safe environment. They say that since they opened their doors to this teen-only media space about a year ago, news spread by word of mouth, texting, and social media messaging peer-to-peer among teens across the city, and their population includes young people in diverse public and private schools, as well as home schoolers.

YouMedia is all about fulfilling the traditional goals of education, but through innovative means keyed to today’s networked and digital media environment. Eshleman explains to me that when they were designing the site, the organizers debated whether to bring their teen book collection into the space. Ultimately, they decided to integrate traditional and new media, and the walls of YouMedia are lined with books. Librarians were delighted to see a tenfold increase in the circulation of their teen titles after YouMedia opened. YouMedia also organizes events that bring together traditional and new media literacy. One example is the program they design around the Mayor’s One Book One Chicago initiative, where Chicagoans are encouraged to read one book at the same time. Just last month, YouMedia organized a series of new media projects around Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. During my visit to YouMedia, I was treated to a series of multimedia projects reflecting teens’ interpretations and understanding of the novel. These projects are an important reminder that traditional and new media literacies can work hand in hand.

A similar dynamic is at play in how YouMedia integrates teen peer culture with learning. Too often, we assume that socializing and fun is hostile to academics, and that “peer pressure” pulls kids away from learning. Responsible adults see their role as limiting access to games and entertainment, and drawing kids away from their peers in order to insist on attention to schoolwork and learning. In YouMedia, you’ll see a very different dynamic. Young people are invited to hang out, play with games, and mess around informally with technology. They deep dive into media literacy projects that are supported by knowledgeable peers and mentors. Engagement thrives when young people are allowed to experiment, socialize, and take ownership of the agenda; there’s absolutely no reason why the content of that activity can’t be adult-sponsored learning. When young people are supported in pursuing their own choices and interests, and when they are allowed to mobilize peer activity around those interests, suddenly socializing, fun, and peer pressure drive learning rather than detracting from it.

YouMedia supports learning that begins with youth agency and voice, is socially connected, tailored to individual interests, and highly engaged — properties that are absent from many young people’s classroom experiences. The energy level and buzz in the space is similar to what I see when young people are with their same-aged peer group, immersed in online gaming, gossiping, or sharing YouTube videos, but this is an intergenerational space framed by educational goals–an open public space, an institution of public education, where learning and literacy are seamless with youth-driven activity.

If we think of the mission of public education as providing learning opportunities to all young people and not only about supporting public schools, YouMedia represents some of the best of what public education has to offer in the 21st Century. The Obama administration has recognized this, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services recently announced that they would work with the MacArthur Foundation in scaling the YouMedia effort to thirty more libraries across the country.

Imagine what it would mean to think of public education as a mission shouldered not only by schools, but by a wide range of public institutions committed to knowledge and learning? When we think of public education, do we include the efforts of those in public and independent media, who develop radio, television, movies and games with an educational mission? Do we include organizations like Mozilla, Wikipedia, Creative Commons, and the Internet Archive committed to the production of knowledge in the public interest and in the public domain? Do we think of the efforts in broadband policy that seek to make the online knowledge accessible to families across the country? To me, these are all efforts in public education that are often overlooked in our often exclusive focus on schools.

I’m proud to say that the designers of YouMedia credit research that I was involved in on young people’s social media activity as part of the inspiration for the design of the space. My research and the work, including YouMedia, that I’ve been involved in as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative takes on these questions of what it means to build a new vision of public education for the 21st Century. I look forward to sharing and discussing more of this work with all of you here.

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