Social networking used to happen in neighborhoods and classrooms, and at pools and playgrounds. Now, it is happening at stoplights and bedrooms and basements. While the platforms for social networking have changed since I was a kid, many of the “rules of engagement” or social skills plus contexts have not. Have they?
“Don’t talk to strangers” only applied in certain situations when I was growing up. If there was a new kid in class, I was expected to talk to him or her. If I wanted to join in to a Marco Polo game with kids I didn’t know at the lake, I had to figure out how to insert myself into it. If my beachball rolled over your beach blanket, I was expected to retrieve it and apologize no matter how strange you were. If a strange adult approached me in the grocery store, I was supposed to find mom or someone who worked at the store. “Don’t talk to strangers” was all about context and my understanding of this was largely shaped by my parents and them guiding me through multiple life experiences over time. As a kid, I figured out how to read situations and adapt my application of the “don’t talk to strangers” rule of thumb.
“If you can’t say something nice, keep your mouth shut” was to be universally applied in my house as I was growing up. I knew I had crossed this line when I heard my mother take a sharp tone and use my formal name, “Rebecca Jane, what are you saying?” Once again, constant feedback from my parents helped shape my understanding. Sometimes as I slip up with this one as an adult, I hear my mother’s voice and clean up my act quickly.
“Always treat others as you would like them to treat you” is another rule of my family. If someone needs something that you have, don’t wait for them to ask for it – offer it. I was taught to share, to be considerate of others, and to take turns. I was taught that rules some times change with “time and place” and that a campfire conversation is different from a dinner table one.
One of the most interesting things I experienced my first year of teaching is that not every child is explicitly taught these things before they come to school. I remember making my first “group assignment” and watching it go no where. I talked with one of my many mentor teachers and he asked if I had ever heard of cooperative learning. I had not, so he pulled a copy of “Circles of Learning” off of his desk and handed it to me and said, “Let’s put our classes together tomorrow. We’ll do a cooperative activity.” He didn’t even ask me what math skill or concept I was trying to teach, but he was willing to take my class. The next day, I was an assistant to a master, handing out papers and moving chairs. And, watching a master at work. He taught the two classes of kids how to make a shared decision and he taught me about cooperation.
Cooperative Learning (see http://www.co-operation.org/index.html) requires that we teach kids social skills. So does social networking – old school or media-based. Learning with others is an engaging quality of design according to Phil Schlechty, but kids can’t do that without being able to work together. Working together and treating each other decently must make their way in to our “core curriculum” if kids are going to be positioned to thrive in this globally connected world. We have to take the time to address the skillsets and dispositions necessary to keep yourself safe and be collectively productive. Schools should “teach” social networking by working with kids to build multiple personal learning networks over time.