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How the Next Generation of Global Kids Will Learn from One Another

The best ways for educating young people have shifted dramatically thanks to technology – not surprisingly. Children still read books, of course, but increasingly tech tools make it possible for children to educate each other — from anywhere in the world — in a more personal way that can sometimes promote deeper learning than traditional methods offer. Notes Howard Blumenthal, a visiting scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School, in this opinion piece: “A mobile device is an ideal tool for curious children and teenagers to pursue a personalized learning path to global citizenship. Think beyond school, beyond traditional media. The internet is the fastest-growing educational institution the world has ever known.” Blumenthal is the creator and producer of the popular PBS children’s series “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” His current project is Kids on Earth (@KidsOnEarth), which connects children and teenagers around the world.

Old people will grab the spotlight. Their story is compelling. In 1950, one in 25 people was over 65. By 2100, one in four will be senior citizens. We’ll see old people everywhere because they live nearby. Expect lots of press about changing the retirement age, end-of-life medical care, updating Medicaid and its international equivalents, along with structural problems with the world’s geriatric care systems. Today, fewer than a billion seniors are on earth. By 2100, there will be nearly three billion.

Today, just beyond the spotlight, our planet has more than two billion children and teenagers. By 2050, there will be three billion. Before the end of this century, more than half of the earth’s 11 billion people will be kids or seniors. Both require extraordinary care and attention.

The difference: We won’t be quite so aware of the kids. That’s because they will grow up in places that don’t get much media attention. The vast majority of new kids will live in India and Nigeria, and also Pakistan and Tanzania, Ethiopia and Indonesia, Uganda and Bangladesh. They will grow up in parts of Asia and Africa often classified as developing nations — a euphemism expressing less-than-adequate food, clothing, shelter, clean water, health care, education and opportunity.

For this next generation, everything will change. Half of extreme poverty has already been wiped out, and we’re making real progress on the other half. Girls are going to school in record numbers. Child mortality rates are greatly improving. There are now wells and clean water where there were none. Deaths from malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and diarrhea are declining at impressive rates. We’re building new medical facilities and schools, and lots of physical and technology infrastructure. The NGO/nonprofit/charity community is helping local people in need, often children and teenagers. Much can be learned from the United Nations Millennium Goals, and their newer Sustainable Development Goals, too.

We are growing the world’s first generation of healthy, literate and globally connected kids. A mobile device is an ideal tool for curious children and teenagers to pursue a personalized learning path to global citizenship. Think beyond school, beyond traditional media. The internet is the fastest-growing educational institution the world has ever known.

“YouTube videos miss an essential part of learning: human interaction…. Often, interaction leads to friendship and deepens understanding.”

Adults should be curious, too — curious about why, how and what kids are learning, curious about how best to help. Adults read alarming articles about misuse of devices (February 7, 2018, The New York Times Magazine cover story: “What Teenagers Are Learning From Online Porn”). Sensational journalism obscures the reality of being a global kid growing up with previously unimaginable opportunities.

A quarter century ago, I created and produced a television series for children and teenagers to introduce them to the world, “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” It became one of PBS’s more popular series because it made learning about the world fun.

Sharing Stories

Nowadays, it makes more sense for children and teenagers to learn about the world from one another, sharing stories about their lives. I thought I might lend a hand. Thanks to a small fellowship, I traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to interview children and teenagers. Hong Kong and a posh boy’s school outside Manchester, England, followed. Soon, under the moniker Kids on Earth, we’ll talk to kids in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mexico City. Timbuktu, too. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a small bag full of digital video gear and a willingness to listen.

When I ask kids as young as seven and as old as 17 what interests them, they’re curious about nature, science, math, coding, music, acting, cooking, baking, traveling, hiking, swimming, camping, friendship, sports (overwhelmingly football, our soccer), music and all kinds of food. So far, interest in television and videogames is limited.

In Uganda, kids knew about last year’s violence at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and her return for a benefit concert. How did they know? They followed the story on the internet. That’s how they knew Hillary Clinton lost the election for U.S. president, too. Eleven-year-old kids in Uganda know much more about the politics of my country than I know about theirs.

“Kids are curious and they are compassionate. To generate learning, nurture empathy.”

They are attentive to classwork and homework. They understand that school success is directly related to financial success as a working adult, so they are serious students. They study physics and chemistry because they intend to become doctors; their country needs more medical professionals. They respect their teachers and the curriculum. They are extremely careful with their books. They enjoy reading. Roald Dahl was mentioned often. So was Harry Potter.

In the classroom, kids see mostly blackboards (whiteboards in wealthier nations), and posters designed for young minds. On the internet, there is no children’s version. Children see what adults see. Children in Uganda watch the same footage of a school shooting as adults in Florida.

The first YouTube video was a trip to the San Diego Zoo: an ordinary person looking at an elephant. YouTube is dominated by ordinary videos, watched by a great many children all over the world. Increasingly, YouTube is the way children and teenagers learn about the world. They are not only viewers, but curators and creators, too.

The biggest producer of YouTube videos is not Nickelodeon or Disney, but individuals telling stories about their lives. If you’re in the children’s media business, that’s a big problem you can try to solve by developing new properties and opening new markets, but the sheer number of enabled storytellers increases daily, reducing market share and mind share as the population grows. Similarly, if you’re running curriculum, and you know that students can choose from a hundred animated explanations of how a plant cell works, how do you capture and maintain their attention in an old school classroom? If you’re building an ed-tech firm, how do you adapt to the reality that children all over the world are teaching and learning from one another?

I think there are three answers.

First, the critical advantage for educators is participation in the real world. The old classroom model is no longer a good solution; it’s too confining, too limited in terms of range of content and presentation options, too far removed from the real world that kids see on and off screen every day.

Second, YouTube videos miss an essential part of learning: human interaction. Listening to others, asking questions and sharing information. Often, interaction leads to friendship and deepens understanding. When an Israeli child encounters with a Palestinian child, they play because that what comes naturally. (Never underestimate play.)

Third, kids are curious, and they are compassionate. To generate learning, nurture empathy. Kids willingly memorize the names of the countries in Africa, but they become keenly interested when they are providing malaria nets or helping to build wells that save lives of children who become their friends. This is no longer theoretical. Students can be collectively involved in studying math and simultaneously learn to become global citizens.

“Kids … become keenly interested when they are providing malaria nets or helping to build wells that save lives of children who become their friends. This is no longer theoretical.”

While those rooted in 20th century thinking continue to manufacture story bibles and cartoon characters, and continue to build curriculum based upon what kids absolutely must know, people engaged in the 21st century readily admit the obvious: We don’t know how the future is going to work, but we’ll improvise and figure it out along the way.

Most likely, the answers reside in the future of interactions between hundreds of millions, then billions, of children and teenagers.

Constructing the initial phases of Kids on Earth, we learn by talking to kids everywhere. There is a lot we do not know. We debate whether English ought to be a common language among children, or whether local languages should be digitally translated to build common understanding. We wonder whether children who tell stories should be held to the COPPA-style guidelines that were designed to protect them as the audience. We’re curious about the connections between friendship, global citizenship and altruism among kids and teenagers, and we hope to focus there in the long term.

We want kids to be able to connect one-on-one and appreciate the commonalities and differences that exist between them. Right now, there is no safe way to do that, not yet anyway, so we keep an eye on public policy, and new technologies, especially machine learning, robotics and artificial reality. We keep an eye on older technologies, too. In many countries, books (and comic books) are the good ways to share stories because the local internet is unreliable or heavily controlled.

None of this has never happened before. Everything about it is new.

Imagine being four years old today, growing up near clean water with a healthy mother, with a new school nearby and ample internet service along with abundant electricity. And imagine your best friend lives 3,000 miles away in a refugee camp void of formal education, but you talk to her every day of your life. Because you both love drawing and because she makes you giggle.

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