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Socializing at School

“We’re not here to socialize,” admonished Mrs. Goldberg, a woman so old, I believe she was covered in dust. Nonetheless, those words still send a shiver down my spine like the proverbial fingernails on a blackboard. The admonishment came in my third-grade math class as Bob Berman and I debated the definition of a scalene triangle.

The year was 1971, but I believe the “no socialization” rule has been a staple of education from the beginning. It likely dates back to the foundation of the first Jesuit school. Mrs. Goldberg may have dated even further back than that.

Change is an anathema in the world of education but the insurgency is here. After all, which are you more likely to see today, a student with an overstuffed backpack, looking as though he were going to hike Machu Picchu, or a student connecting with the rest of the universe via a smart phone or tablet computer?

Five years ago, I would have said the former, and I am quite certain five years from now, it will be exclusively the latter. So it’s only logical that we must be on the brink of an education revolution with social media leading the way.

It all began with the homeschoolers. Early on, homeschooling was considered the domain of the fringe element. It was supposedly for conspiracy theorists, the back-to-nature crowd, and religious zealots of all stripes. And homeschooling students were presumed to be social misfits. “What about socialization?” is the rallying cry of the detractors of home education. This has the logic of a Lewis Carroll story because while homeschoolers were spending much of their time in the real world, Mrs. Goldberg was reminding her students that they weren’t there to socialize.

Homeschooling has always been a grassroots operation. Word-of-mouth and “Been there – done that” anecdotes are basic survival skills for homeschoolers, and when it became a practicality to commune with like-minded cottage educators in far-flung places via social media, they embraced it fast and ardently. As technology and social media grew, the ranks of homeschoolers grew right along with it. Other students, who had long been underserved in the traditional schools, began to embrace homeschooling. Those who were gifted, or academically behind turned to home education. Those who were bullied and those who were disciplinary problems joined the ranks as well. And children who were ill or had learning disabilities like ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome also embraced home schooling. These subgroups were finally able to find resources and support that they couldn’t find at their traditional school by socializing on the web. In turn, the traditional schools began to embrace social media as well.

Computers aren’t exactly new to the schoolhouse. Even my elementary school had an AR-33 terminal in the library. At prescheduled times, the librarian could connect via telephone to the University of Pittsburgh, and for the next 45 minutes it would (with the sonic subtlety of a blitzkrieg) hammer out a dot matrix picture of Snoopy. And we thought that was pretty dang cool.

Today, I am told that there is a computer in nearly every classroom. (I believe the Amish schools are skewing the average a bit.) Often it is a single computer on the teacher’s desk used for administrative purposes. Typically, students must put the smart phones and tablets away before class begins. That won’t last long. After all, it’s unreasonable to think that students who are connected technologically all weekend long could suddenly unplug on Monday morning and learn in the same fashion that I did in the 1970’s.

Today’s youth simply think differently than my generation. They train themselves to think in hyperlinks. There is very little chronology in the process. They don’t view math as a distinct discipline from philosophy or science, but rather they celebrate the connections between the two. The idea of creating an outline or using 3 X 5 notecards to organize their thoughts makes little sense when they have “cut” and “paste” commands at your fingertips. The idea of researching takes on a whole new shape when facts and information are available on demand, and students can communicate with each other on a myriad of sites like Goodreads, Academia.edu, Library Thing, Students Circle Network and on and on.

The revolution has definitely started. The Jesuits may have invented the “no-socialization-in-school” rule but they love life on the cutting edge. A quick web search of Jesuit schools shows they have fully embraced social media. In fact most schools, public and private, use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media outlets to keep students and parents informed and educated.

The terms “correspondence school” and “distance learning” have become virtually meaningless.  And the lines between homeschooling, cyber schooling and bricks-and-mortar schooling are beginning to blur. Nonetheless, Mrs. Goldberg is still out there teaching — figuratively if not literally. Her voice no longer sounds like fingernails on a blackboard because blackboards have given way to whiteboards. She’s a little dustier now, but she has tenure and won’t go down without a fight.

When I was in school, we were restricted to socializing with those who were born in the same agrarian year and had the same zip code. Even then, we were limited to those who were in note-passing proximity of our desk. Mrs. Goldberg needs to realize that students today really are there to socialize and it may be the best education possible. Imagine if Bob Berman and I had been allowed to discuss problem number eight. For that matter, what if we had been able to discuss it with other students all over the world? What if we had been able to study what we needed to know, when we needed to know it, at a pace that was commensurate with our abilities? And what if we were able to share our ideas with the entire world? And I do mean the entire world; it turns out there are more Amish Facebook pages than I could count. Who knew?

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  1. Gregory Misiorek
    Hi Ed,

    i appreciate the elegance with which you advocate the school choice, but unfortunately cannot agree. with all that the social media offers it cannot replace the human interaction. it offers an alternative outlet and makes us sometimes feel there is no distance, but reality puts us back squarely into schools, companies, barracks, hospitals, etc..
    when was the last time you gave your computer a hug no matter how great you felt when communicating with it? the social media is also full of “homeless dogs”, just like the internet overall. how many people can you call friends if you know them only from facebook and how many those whom you met back in 1971?
    don’t get me wrong, i’m all for replacing those overweight textbooks with something lighter, hopefully not at triple of the price, but i suspect there will be those stuck with bricks in their backpacks as it would simply be more affordable.
    for all the education i have received in my life the only one that really counts is the one i got on my own, without any teacher’s help.

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    1. Tom Van Doorslaer
      I love the writing style and brought me right back to my school days (not that long ago) where teachers even confisquated my early days cell phone and Cassette playing walkman.

      I agree to a certain extend with both opinions:
      A) schools are important and can’t be entirely replaced by home learning as you need the physical aspect as well. Debating over facebook is simply not the same as debating in real life.
      B) Social media, Internet, IT must not be banned from school as they provide an enormous amount of knowledge opinions and (sometimes) wisdom.

      So perhaps you have to combine best of both worlds. Start the discussions at school, let the students debate in real life, write down their thoughts afterwards and share them with the world, who in turn might further refine the opinions.

      And I believe that many schools are already going down that road, as I read in other blog postings here on SCN.

      I have never met Mrs. Goldberg, but I believe she may very well be the perfect match for the dusty old Mr. Spaepen who attempted to teach me Poetry and literature, and who never seemed to grasp the idea of Sarcasm, Irony and per extent, humor.

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    2. Ed Shimp Post author
      I appreciate your reply. Hang in there for the next blog or two because a thorough reply here would be too lengthy.

      However, the question of finding humanity in digital socialization is fascinating. As someone who has been trained in the arts, I regard it as an opportunity rather than a weakness.

      I also think the comment about the economics of it all is apt. (e.g. the Chevy Volt is a wonderful idea but . . .) Education reform will ultimately have to answer to economics but right now, costs have soared and results haven’t. Education is ripe for reform. Check out the major textbook manufacturers; they’ve already stopped making printed textbooks. It’s already happened! Think about the economics of printing and delivering textbooks and you’ll see it makes sense.

      And that’s just the beginning.

      Ed Shimp

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