Watchworthy Wednesday: Listen to Youth to Improve Education

Christopher Emdin, associate professor of science education at Columbia University, Teachers College, opened his keynote address at this year’s SXSWedu (South by Southwest Education) Conference with a little history of the Dinka Tribe of Sudan.

Ages ago, he explained, Dinka children suffered from an outbreak of tetanus, which causes “lockjaw,” so they couldn’t open their mouths to eat. As a solution, the tribe decided that tooth extraction would allow the children afflicted by the infectious disease to drink liquids even when their jaw muscles clamped shut. The practice continued, generation after generation, even after the young people no longer suffered from tetanus.

“It had become ritualized practice to rip out the teeth, not because it was essential, but because it had become tradition,” Emdin said. “In contemporary education, we follow that exact same model.”

When you think about marginalized youth, those unable to partake in the wealth of knowledge available today, “we have to rip out their teeth in order for them to learn,” he said. “The ripping out of their teeth, to me, is the extraction of culture. The extraction of culture has been a necessary component of teaching in America for the sake of allowing young folks to be able to have some food, some knowledge.”

In 2017, he continued, information is readily available to young folks who have been marginalized in school. “They can go on Google and get the information. They can open up their windows, open their eyes and just see the world around them and learn. … Today, the information is all around them but we are still extracting their culture. … That should rattle you.”

His point: The antiquated ideas about education involving young people in urban spaces no longer work. “Schooling has been framed essentially like a contemporary space program. The most ideal schools are these schools that are perfect, high tech,” Emdin said. “A lot of folks hide under the umbrella of tech without focusing on the pedogogy. Are we as educators going to be humble enough to create spaces to allow young people to teach us what we need to do?”

He offers solutions that embrace the principles of connected learning, which rather than see technology as a means toward more efficient and automated forms of education, connected learning puts progressive, experiential, and learner-centered approaches at the center of technology-enhanced learning. Watch his entire keynote address, available online:

SXSWedu, held in March, also featured two other keynote speakers and a closing talk on “daring classrooms.” Those and 28 other talks are available for viewing online. All are pretty inspirational and worth watching. SXSWedu aim is to foster innovation in learning by hosting a diverse and energetic community of stakeholders across a variety of backgrounds in education. Next year’s conference will be held March 5-8 in Austin.

Editor’s note: Watchworthy Wednesday posts highlight interesting resources and appear in DML Central every Wednesday. Any tips for future posts are welcome. Please comment below or send email to mcruz@hri.uci.edu.