State of the Nation
Education, Algorithms & Opportunities for Kids Media to Create Third Spaces for Learning
More than 500 twelve to fifteen-year-olds from across the UK shared views in a two-stage methodology that included 32 one-to-one interviews with young people in London, Bournemouth, Gateshead and Newcastle, and an additional 514 survey responses from across the UK.
Overarching topics included climate change, diversity, schooling, social media, friends, money, and more. The aim was to understand what young people care and worry about and where they gain knowledge that informs their opinions.
This post focused on education is the first in a series of posts covering key aspects of the findings.
How best to educate children and young people has been much debated throughout history and is closely related to historic, social and cultural values. In 1762, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau caused a stir by writing a proposal for how to educate an imaginary child called Emile into adulthood by letting him learn purely from nature and everyday life experiences. Since then, the argument for unstructured education, or learning for learning’s sake, has reoccured in notable examples and movements. A S Neill opened the famed Summerhill in 1922 which was described as a ‘do-as-you-please-school’ where formal lessons were optional (Saffange, 1994).
More recently, the Forest Schooling movement, which takes children into natural environments for unstructured learning, has spread around the world from its Danish origins.
During my previous employment as a University Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, I shared details of such theories and approaches to education with trainee teachers, who having grown up in a system of learning for assessment, would show surprise, or even strong disbelief in the purpose of learning without structure or knowledge acquisition tests.
Our “State of the Nation” research brought this memory back to me for three reasons. First, the participants repeatedly said they were bored at school, and directly referred to heavy testing. Second, the COVID pandemic has changed children’s relationship to school, potentially offering a turning point for something new. Finally, algorithms embedded in the media most-used by children strongly affects their relation to information in online spaces of learning. I focus in more detail on these three areas next, before suggesting how they create opportunities for the kids media industry.
Learning for Learning’s Sake
Reading through the interview transcripts, it struck me was how regularly schooling (with the exception of the chance to see friends) was described as boring.
“It is quite boring. [What is on the plus side of school?] Seeing my friends and having fun.” (Girl, 15, Bournemouth)
“And there is a point where school isn’t enjoyable because you have to but you don’t really want to be there- kind of boring. I am not going to lie. I have a lot of tests and it is annoying. School isn’t really a place you would want to be all the time. The only positive about it is getting to see your friends. It’s not great.” (Girl, 14, Bournemouth)
Learning in the context of school was seen as something to be endured rather rather than enjoyed:
“Not the best thing but just gotta get on with it, I know I need to do my GCSEs and that.” (Girl, 14, Gateshead)
“The workload is a lot and homework is a lot but it is only going to get more so I am just going to have to get on with it.” (Girl, 14, Bournemouth)
The association of learning with assessment rather than enjoyment is something I witness in my higher education teaching, too. Fleming (2021) writes that ‘the businessification of universities parallels the neolibralisation of society more generally…where some of the most decisive changes occurred in the 1990s…when higher education was revamped as an industrial-complex (p.36). Thus, the association with learning for assessment is now deeply embedded from early childhood through the most advanced forms of formal education.
I was bemoaning to colleague in higher education that, increasingly, doctoral students come with an exact understanding of what they want to study and how, stick rigidly to this plan to reach completion, and so rarely experiment and achieve true acquisition of new knowledge and innovation. She replied by saying that in her field many students arrive to begin a postgraduate degree in fashion with fine motor skills so poor they are not able to use scissors to the standard required. It may feel like a well-worn argument that children and young people’s school learning experiences have knock-on impact into adulthood; however, these effects are entrenched in more ways than we might think on first reflection.
Of course, being bored at school is nothing new; I spent a lot of time wishing I was elsewhere. However, the emphasis on measuring assessment outcomes and using them to rank educational institutions continually intensifies metrics-based teaching. We are diminishing the opportunities for children to engage with a broad range of subjects.
Pushing aside the arts as unessential is testimony to this and a caution that some children’s learning interests will always be minimised in schools.
COVID-19 has Altered Children’s Relationship to School
Then came the pandemic which altered children’s relationship to school.
Unsurprisingly, the children in our study talked about gaps in their school attendance due to the current pandemic:
“I feel like I ended school in year nine, then came back for some of year 10 then jumped straight into year 11 and it’s a lot.” (Girl, 15, Gateshead)
A study undertaken at the University of Exeter shows that the pandemic has shifted parental attitudes about who should be responsible for children’s learning:
Families are more likely to think they should be involved in their child’s education since the coronavirus pandemic began, the research, from the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, shows a total of 35 per cent of parents said before the school closures they had thought children’s education was the responsibility of schools, compared to 7 per cent after closures. Around 60 per cent had viewed education as a shared responsibility between teachers and parents, this fell to 38 per cent. A total of 5 per cent said before closures they had thought said education was the responsibility of parents, after closure this rose to 55 per cent. (University of Exeter)
In our research, we did not ask children directly about the impact of COVID on their opinions of school. Still, there were signs of that influence in several topics they addressed, and also in the survey data around their opinions of teachers. As can be seen in the graph below, fewer than half of the participants surveyed thought teachers were effective or understanding, and only 36% thought teachers treat everyone fairly.
We don’t have to look far to find other stories about a lack of fairness in education. The Office of National Statistics (ONS, 2020) reported that COVID-19 exacerbates social and emotional issues identified as affecting education before the virus. Indeed, throughout the pandemic there have been regular news reports on how the UK’s digital divide hinders many children’s access to online learning during lockdowns and periods of self-isolation. The massive longitudinal cohort-study ‘Born in Bradford’ reported that only 8-20% of children in their city have partial access to computing technologies and the internet — a situation at odds with government’s digital strategy for home-learning during the pandemic. Some examples of these inequalities in education were evident in the young people’s responses in our “State of the Nation research” too:
“I go to a grammar school but then there are public schools and private schools so definitely people have a different range of experiences with school. Especially with people in schools- a negative is that whilst the teachers care, they care to an extent and there is like bullying and stuff but the teachers sometimes they don’t care enough. Even though it is their job to they don’t really care enough to do something about it…Private schools have an advantage on everyone else obviously because they have to pay money and they have better things. A lot of my friends go to state schools and they have like a really bad experience because like not everyone wants to learn, so it affects them and how they work and their confidence and stuff because there is always disruption. Some people just don’t care about school and they won’t do well and that affects other people who want to do well.” (Girl, 14, Bournemouth)
If children do not believe in the effectiveness of teachers, and are turned off from school learning, then they will seek to engage with information and knowledge in other spaces. Insight into these other spaces of learning raises concerns, too.
Lost in Algorithms
The majority of children reported they learned about the news and current affairs secondhand from family, friends or via social media, as can be seen in the following graph:
We know that all three of these sources act as echo chambers — reinforcing existing beliefs rather than exposing new ones. Linear TV viewing allows for serendipity, whereas social media content is fed by algorithms that serve up endless content based on previous viewing habits. The young people we spoke to shunned TV for social media; therefore, the chance to come across information by serendipity becomes minuscule.
“[Do you watch TV?] Not really because I’ve got Youtube…Yeah I’ll use Netflix sometimes if I wanna watch a movie at night.” (Boy, 13, Newcastle)
Beyond the need to teach children the importance of navigating algorithms, there are additional opportunities for the kids media industry.
Third Space Learning Opportunities for the Kids Media industry
The kids media industry, in its capacity as a third space for learning, could target areas of learning that have been diminished in schools, need addressing in more depth (see our related blog post on climate change education), or to encourage more learning for learning’s sake. The concept of educational third spaces draws on theory by Moje et al (2004) and refers to spaces of learning that are neither solely school- or home-based. For example, in relation to literacy practices, Levy (2008) uses it to refer to schools inviting inclusion of materials from home literacy practices. Here, I use the term to refer to the self-directed learning spaces that children create online, where they join friends to connect in games and on social media.
I often suggest that we should look at the spaces that children currently use and the content they engage with, and use these to reach young people. Given that children appear disengaged with formal education there is space to consider the types of learning being missed at school and build them into digital media content.
It could also be argued that kids media content should think more about steering away from the use of algorithms, and instead require children to search more for what interests them. Doing so may bring back the element of serendipity that might make them stumble across something completely new and unknown.
Fleming, P. (2021) Dark Academia: How Universities Die. Pluto Press.
Levy, R. (2008)‘Third spaces’ are interesting places: Applying ‘third space theory’ to nursery-aged children’s constructions of themselves as readers. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. Vol. 8(1) 43–66
Moje, E. B., Ciechanowski, K. M., Kramer, K., Ellis, L., Carrillo, R. and Collazo, T. (2004) ‘Working toward Third Space in Content Area Literacy: An Examination of Everyday Funds of Knowledge and Discourse’. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 39(1), p.40–70.
ONS (2020)Available at: www.ons.gov.uk
Rousseau, J. J. (1762) Emile, or On Education.
Saffange, J. (1994) Alexander Sutherland Neill (1883–1973), Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, Vol. XXIV(½), p.217–229.