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Doing what comes naturally

6 min read


Many people in my generation see the rise of social media as a negative force that replaces human-to-human connection with a virtual one. Educators sometimes are prone to see social media as a competing force, distracting students from the work they are expected to do in school. Many who hear the daily stories of how people have used social media to hurt and ridicule others are frightened by how “impossible” it can be to control what young people do to each other online.

These feelings and perceptions are so strong because social media and technology threaten the very foundations of how we have traditionally viewed education. A bedrock principle of education has been that students need to be controlled in order to learn. So strong is this perception that many educators have difficulty imagining education and schools to be any other way. This mental frame that governs how most view education is only a lens and doesn’t have to be an unchangeable reality.

Why is it automatically assumed that students have to be controlled? Why does this idea have such a strong grip on how we view education? The answer is pretty basic: fear of losing control. I call this the primal fear of most teachers. Teachers have nightmares of people especially their principals leveling this criticism: They don’t have control of their classes. To most teachers, this is tantamount to saying that they are incompetent and irresponsible. Social media and technology represent something teachers can’t control so no wonder it is such a threat to them and everything they have been taught about education.

What do schools tend to do regarding these types of problems? They attempt to tighten the controls by creating more laws, regulations, consequences and procedures for enforcing them. This is an automatic reaction because schools have traditionally viewed problems as negative things that only get in the way of educating and because they don’t know any other way of addressing a problem. Unfortunately, this fear-based need to tighten controls only deepens the gap and the distrust between the adult world and the student world.

There is an alternative. Instead of viewing social media and technology as a problem to fix in order to re-establish the status quo, how about embracing it as a way to learn something about students, their needs and how we might better educate them. Perhaps instead of letting our “primal fear” drive our response and reinforce the mental frame of controlling to educate,  we can let go of our fear and re-examine some of our basic assumptions of education.

Here are some reflection points for educators:

  • Ask yourself if you have ever enjoyed the experience of being controlled and manipulated by someone with power and authority over you. The answer most would give is a resounding NO. If this is true for most people, it is also true for students.
  • Ask yourself why students need to be controlled. Humans are wired to learn. It is synonymous  with being human. Learning in school is different than learning outside of school. If students are not motivated, they are not the problem. It is what we are teaching and how we  are educating them.
  • Ask yourself what school would be like if learning was meaningful, purposeful and valued without arbitrary timelines for demonstrating mastery. What if students has some choice and voice in how they learned?
  • Ask yourself if the experience in schools has to be an individual experience based on meeting the expectations of one teacher and the prescribed curriculum. Why is learning together, where the social is integrated with the intellectual, not considered as a legitimate way to learn in most schools?
  • Ask yourself why learning in school has to be joyless or tedious. Shouldn’t asking and answering intriguing questions be an exciting experience?
  • Ask yourself what learning experiences in your own life were the most positive and the most negative. Where did those learning experiences occur? What made them positive and what made them negative?
  • Ask yourself what is stopping you from asking students if they need to be controlled or better yet asking them how they would like to educated.

Students’ embrace of social media is part their natural desire to connect with other people and find meaning in those connections. It also offers them the type of environment that allows them to be themselves rather that just meeting the expectations of those in authority or standardized versions for themselves. The social media environment  has therefore become one that stands in stark contrast to the traditional school environment. That is why students embrace it and view it as a refuge from the adult world that they perceive as primarily concerned with controlling them.

Students do not have to be feared nor do they have to be controlled in order to learn.Even though most of us have been taught and have come to view this perception as true, it doesn’t have to be. Since we have learned that view, we can unlearn it and can see education in a different way. Educators can check their fear at the door of the school and allow students to embrace a type of learning they need but had sought elsewhere. Students want schools to welcome and support their love of learning and of connecting with others; they want schools to be places where they can be full human beings growing into the best people they can be.

Students can be trusted to be learners. Students want us to trust them. Like all of us, they want and need to feel trusted and respected and allowed to have some control over what they learn and how they learn it. Students want to be partners with us in creating environments where all people are learning together.

Social media and technology can be natural extensions of human learning. Schools should be a welcoming place for them. They don’t need to keep their world separate from the adult world. They need the wisdom of educators to help them understand and explore how to use these new tools in a positive and productive way. Students are waiting for educators to discover what they have already found; they are eagerly waiting for us to join them and learn with them.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at