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Want to Talk to Your Students About Their Online Dilemmas?

New research may help you jump start conversations in your classroom

Today’s teenagers face a host of technology-based social situations that, while not new, remain complicated. A TikTok, for example, that features friends hanging out might lead to a teen feeling left out, but also frustrated by their family’s different COVID rules. Or an Instagram story about Black Lives Matter is “read” by some as essential and by others as performative — and behind the screen, the teen posting may have conflicting feelings as well. Students need teachers’ guidance for the digital landscape as much as ever. 

With this in mind, a newly released report, led by HGSE’s Project Zero researchers Carrie James and Emily Weinstein, and Kelly Mendoza, vice president of education programs at Common Sense Media, describes how these dilemmas encountered on social networking platforms and in digital spaces are often challenging for teens. The report also includes new curriculum resources, including classroom “thinking routines” designed in collaboration with Project Zero, to help students lean into dilemmas and develop essential dispositions for doing so in their real lives.

“We’ve studied young people’s digital lives for over a decade, and we realize there are so many issues and decision points teens face that evade simple right or wrong answers,” says Weinstein, a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “We love using digital dilemmas in the classroom because they provide an anticipatory opportunity where — before a teen is dealing with a personal situation — they can have a really robust classroom conversation that supports self-reflection, perspective taking, and empathetic communication.” 

Here, James and Weinstein look at one of the thinking routines, “Feelings and Options,” and offer a set of four core questions and steps educators can use to facilitate classroom discussions about social dilemmas: 

1.    Identify

  • Ask students to identify the dilemma, and who is involved. Is the issue a concern about bullying? Is someone’s privacy at stake? Who are the different people involved?

This step helps focus student attention on what’s truly at stake and who may be impacted. “Adolescents, especially, can have developmental blind spots and disconnects when it comes to identifying ethical situations,” James explains. This can lead to more limited, individualistic thinking. The “identify” step may seem obvious, but it helps function as an exercise in “ethics spotting” — the ability to recognize a situation that involves ethical issues. Asking students to think about who’s involved also prompts their thinking about the connections they have to others.

2.    Feel

  • Encourage students to step into the shoes of each of the people involved in the dilemma. How do you think each person might be feeling? 

As Weinstein explains, it might be natural to identify strongly with one of the people in the scenario and it’s easy to get stuck in that person’s perspective. Broadening the sphere of consideration is therefore an intentional move. “The 'feel' step is part of disentangling some of our initial knee-jerk reactions to support thinking that is more nuanced, empathetic, and purposeful,” she says.

3.    Imagine

  • Brainstorm ideas for possible actions and responses.

It’s important that educators make it clear that in this step, the aim is to brainstorm as many different steps as possible. Naming all ideas and responses — especially bad ones — is valuable because it gives teens the space to acknowledge why those ideas and responses are sometimes tempting and why, ultimately, another course of action might be better. After an open brainstorm, students choose the path they think will lead to the most positive outcome.  

4.    Say

  • Once students have narrowed in on a course of actions they’d actually take in a scenario, let them practice or plan out a response that feels authentic and realistic.

Often, students can easily name what the right response would be, but it may not be what they’d actually do or they might get “stuck” in real life because it can be hard to find the words to navigate tricky social situations. Empowering positive action requires that students have ideas about what to do and the language to get there that feels authentic and within reach. Let them practice saying or writing out their response or course of action so that, should they be faced with the dilemma in real life, they’re prepared with their own words. 

Other Takeaways from the Report

  • The more we normalize discussions about digital dilemmas the better, so bring the conversation home. Parents can introduce digital dilemmas with their kids. 
  • Students may be more digitally savvy than the adults in their lives, but adults still have a crucial role to play, especially when it comes to building social and emotional skills. 
  • As ethical conundrums, these dilemmas don’t always have clear cut right or wrong answers. Educators need to be sure they’re giving enough room for student voice and not passing judgment on student responses.

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