Living and learning in the digital age

How do young people really feel about the future? How do they construct identities at home, at school and online? What’s it like growing up in a hyper-connected yet individualistic world? What does it mean to young people “to be educated”?

The Class explores these questions and more in a wide-ranging research project exploring what it’s like growing up in world mediated by digital technology.

As an experienced media studies teacher, I have been involved in classroom-based research about how young people construct digital identities. And in my academic reading, I have found that adults often focus on their own fear of this unknown space: we worry about privacy, self-esteem and the effects on the brain.

In contrast, once they find their “digital feet” young people join communities, develop friendships around interests, experiment with creativity and are able to reflect on how their online and off-line identities are different. So I was hopeful that this book would foreground the voices of the students and avoid citing our familiar anxieties.

Thankfully, this is the case. Sefton-Green and Livingstone immerse themselves in the school and home lives of 28 year 9 students at a London comprehensive, giving them to a rounded impression of each individual. As teachers, we know relatively little about most of our students’ home lives; as parents, we know how difficult it is to glean details about the school day from monosyllables.

The angle I found most interesting was the idea of connection. We are more connected to each other than ever before. However, there is also disconnection, in the context of an individualised society where the future is uncertain and traditional communities are fragmenting.

In my generation – the 40-something parent – we tend to view young people as “digital-natives”, primed to exploit global networks both socially and professionally. As a teacher, I am aware of the capabilities of technology to blend or flip learning and the potential dissolution of the boundary between home and school.

However, the research concludes that there were “failings” in the school’s ability to connect with students once they were out of school. There is the usual one-way text and email communication, but no dialogue that might connect learning at home with learning at school. One reason for this is that the young people were determined to keep home and school life separate. The researchers wonder if school would be enhanced if teachers knew more about young people’s considerable talents. Yet they conclude that a degree of disconnection is healthy, as the young people seek to preserve a sense of privacy and identity separate from school life.

Overall, the book concludes that young people, school and family remain conservative in a time of uncertainty. Parents are anxious; students are generally optimistic about the future.

Despite these findings, the researchers are hopeful that there is scope for a progressive approach to schooling and learning, which connects young people’s experience in a more holistic, satisfying way. While I agree with the motivation behind this recommendation, I feel that the present climate in education does not encourage progressive thinking. Teachers and leaders have to prioritise academic achievement above all else. If results decline, then schools can face the upheaval of new leadership, more scrutiny and the associated pressure. There is a touch of naivety here, which teachers might pick up on.

I can imagine this book could become required reading for academic studies in youth culture and identity. Teachers may find it rewarding, but at 300 pages, an executive summary would be fine. I did enjoy its rich insight into the lives of the young people, its rounded view of their experience and the inclusion of their voices in transcripts. I would welcome a return to these students’ lives in two years and see how their world view and passions have evolved.