Private school

How social media is being used in the classroom

Removing social media is not the answer for long-term growth and development, says one educator
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Special Advertising Feature: Private School Guide Fall 2021 

Walk into the bedroom of any tween or teen, anywhere in the country, and chances are pretty high that you’ll find them scrolling social media. Networks like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have become an integral part of the experience of growing up, and given that kids today are digital natives who have never known life without the internet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a middle-schooler without at least one social media account. Even younger children who aren’t old enough to have their own accounts can navigate their way through a touchscreen as if they were born knowing how.

Parents and experts alike, however, worry about the effects of social media’s constant stream of entertainment on child development. It’s the age of instant gratification, where content can be changed with a tap or a swipe, so how do kids learn to focus on one thing at a time? Are their attention spans getting shorter? Should educators be adjusting their lessons to accommodate? “Kids by definition have short attention spans, so it’s not that social media is causing even shorter attention spans,” says Dr. Daniel Chorney, a psychologist in Halifax. “It’s that when you give kids more options to look at, they’re going to choose them. But the reality is, these kids are going to have things constantly competing for their attention, so we have to teach them now how to better isolate what’s meaningful and important. We have to teach kids to be educated consumers of knowledge.”

With this in mind, it might seem like a no-brainer to just remove social media from the classroom—many schools have a no-mobile-device policy on school grounds—and stick to traditional teaching methods, but many educators believe there is an opportunity with the integration of social media to teach kids to be judicious about content. “Removing social media is not the answer for long-term growth and development. We work to build a strong understanding of what social media is and what it is capable of,” says Garth Nichols, vice-principal of strategic innovation at Havergal College in Toronto. (Havergal even has a course called Digital Wisdom for students in Grades 5, 6, 7 and 8.) “It’s important for students to become responsible and ethical citizens who can navigate a digitally mediated world,” says Nichols. “Our teachers work with our students on the negative and positive impacts of social media, on everything from media literacy to physical health to personal branding.” Lee Vendetti at J. Addison in Markham, Ont., agrees: “Students [need to] learn to think critically, become smart consumers of products and information, recognize points of view and identify the role of media in our culture. At J. Addison, media literacy is taught in all classes.”

Chorney also adds that the application of social media in the classroom matters, and that it can provide valuable opportunities to contribute to causes, to connect with like-minded individuals to share experiences and stories and more. “It doesn’t have to just be about the scroll,” he says.

In some classrooms, gamification platforms with a social interface have also taken on a learning role. Platforms like Mathletics and Prodigy allow kids to take on lessons and advance through online games, or to challenge classmates in learning activities. “Gamification can increase student participation, social interaction and self-guided exploration when combined with other methods of research,” says Dave Treherne, elementary principal at Unionville Montessori in Markham, Ont. “It can allow students to reflect on their work, set their own goals and track their progress. During competitive games, teachers can identify areas of weakness, group and individual skill levels and overall engagement with a topic of study.”

Gamification as an education resource can be a way to engross kids and to boost their confidence, but it should be used as part of an integrated approach to engagement.  “We need to teach kids to be flexible and adaptive. If in some areas, a child requires a gamified approach to learning, because it’s creative, it’s quick, it’s short—great. Work with it,” says Chorney. “At the same time, we do need to teach kids to learn in other ways. Can they watch a 30-minute video without needing to take a break? Can they engage in a discussion project without having a screen in front of them?” The name of the game is balance. The sweet spot integrates both old-school and new-school learning, to teach our kids to be effective problem solvers and critical thinkers.