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Several months ago, my fifth-grade class asked me to play Red Light, Green Light. Not typically a game my fifth graders request, it came as a surprise. Later that week I watched the first episode of a very grown-up horror series on Netflix called Squid Games, and instantly realized most of my class had as well.

In the show, participants play a version of Red Light, Green Light and are shot between the eyes violently and swiftly for the slightest wrong move. Their goal? To beat everyone else for a pile of cash. It was violent, and although I love the horror genre, I had a hard time getting through it. Instantly, I connected it to some of the comments kids had said during our game, comments that mirrored the show. It was a bit surreal, and scary as hell.

“Kids haven’t changed; technology has. So why haven’t we changed our classroom curriculum to match it? More importantly, when do we plan to start doing it?” Red Light! It’s Time to Take Digital Literacy Seriously Click To Tweet

Something like this would never have been available to me as a child, but times have changed. Kids now have access to streaming services, social media, cell phones, and gaming platforms where nearly everything they do is both anonymous and uncensored. A few minutes researching current news will reveal what I found: how social media targets girls, metaverse groping, so-called “incel” and shooter discussion boards, just to name a few.  My students need skills and strategies to practice discernment around what they watch. They need help making sense of the deluge of content they consume. What’s real? What’s fake? And what’s appropriate?

Red light. Does anyone else see a problem here?

One of the most revealing recent tech stories was the revelation that companies have developed algorithms that exploit what I knew back in 4th grade when the teacher gave me a dictionary and a minute alone. Kids will look at inappropriate things first because that’s what kids do. Kids haven’t changed; technology has. So why haven’t we changed our classroom curriculum to match it? More importantly, when do we plan to start doing it?

Teachers have a tool to help students understand the power this new technology brings. It’s called digital literacy, and we’d better start making it a core part of our curriculum. The American Library Association (ALA) defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” My main concern is with the evaluation part. Here’s why. 

What We Teach in Schools, and What We Don’t

In a famous introductory video to his Code.org program called “What Isn’t Taught In Our Schools”, Bill Gates, and celebrities, begged us to bring coding to our classrooms. But they didn’t ask us to teach students how to use social media and technology responsibly. Other large tech company CEOs have questioned lately about the social impact of their products. Their answers mostly offer either lies, ignorance, or denial that their products are problems in the first place.  With the recent pandemic, we’ve put even more of their products in the hands of our kids. What we haven’t done is teach our students how to use any of it responsibly.

Two places where you can see this are the (outdated) 2009 California Standards for the Teaching Profession or CSTPs, and the California Common Core State Standards. The new CSTPs, which should be adopted this year, seek to clarify a need for digital literacy in several standards. But this draft must be approved by the California Board of Education. Here is where you can find that draft, and here is how you can give input into what they ultimately vote for.

“It is time for the public to call for sweeping changes to how social media and tech giants operate and target our youth.” Red Light! It’s Time to Take Digital Literacy Seriously Click To Tweet

The Cost of Not Teaching Digital Literacy

There is a cost to the kind of ignorance and anonymity we’re subjecting our students to. The cost lies deep in the hearts and the impressionable minds of our nation’s young people. Since the days children have had access to cell phones, social media and anonymous forums, the narcissism index has risen, bullying, including cyber-bullying, has become an epidemic, and students report higher and higher levels of depression and feelings of isolation.  All we are seeing from the pandemic is the tip of a decades-long technology iceberg.

There is a solution to this absolute madness. In the 60s, when evidence began to mount that smoking killed, the public called for health initiatives. They called for health education about the dangers of tobacco. The public put the onus on tobacco companies who were harming Americans to make money.

Today, new products are hurting our kids in powerful ways, and the makers of these products know full well what they are doing. The evidence is once more overwhelming, as is the incentive to make money off of the exploitation of my students, and your kids. It is time for the public to call for sweeping changes to how social media and tech giants operate and target our youth. Write to your legislators, speak at your school boards, seek out organizations who have already developed curriculum, and ask your school to teach these powerful lessons.

Green light. It’s time for us to teach digital literacy. Our kids shouldn’t be victims of a sick game, true or fictional, anymore.

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