[note that the site showing on the display is RedBankGreen which an amazing percentage of this 4th grade class were hip to].
Last week, David Prown and I spoke over at the Red Bank Middle School about technology and neighborhoods [DP covered it on his blog.] When I first accepted the invite to speak, I hadn’t given much thought to the age of my audience but as the time to actually give the presentation approached I found myself struggling with how to explain the notion of social capital to a fourth grade class.
Social Capital is a very nebulous term and can mean a bunch of things to different people depending on the context. My particular interest in social capital is as the value of the relationships between groups and individuals, especially groups or individuals who live in the same geographic area or neighborhood. I’m especially interested in looking at how things like email and other “conversation time-shifting technology” (for lack of a better term) can be used foster social capital in neighborhoods.
Meaning: there is a value in knowing your neighbors - - quantifiable value and qualitative value — but there is value. Having neighbors is not enough, you need to know who they are and they need to know who you are (there is some wiggle-room here regarding the necessary strength of the connection between neighbors). For a variety of reasons we increasingly don’t know our neighbors and they don’t know us. I think that email and other technology can help us to know our neighbors and, consequently, increase the value of the relationships with our neighbors and raise the available social capital in our neighborhoods.
So I tried to hone in on what exactly it was that I wanted to convey to the fourth grades. In the end I decided that I wanted to explain that knowing your neighbors is important. But it’s not just another obligation that grown ups are dumping on kids’ shoulders. Rather, there is value — even for kids (and measurable by kids) — in knowing neighbors. And to that end, I decided on Gameboy cartridges as the measurable unit to quantify the value of social networks among 4th graders.
I picked four kids from the class to stand up. I asked three of them to tell the class how many Gameboy cartridges they had individually. Then we talked about the aggregate value of all the cartridges should they decide to share them with each other (as if they were neighbors who all knew each other). These three volunteers were the social network that we called “the neighborhood.” The students very quickly understood the utility of sharing gameboy cartidges with one another and by extension understood sharing lawn mowers and cups of sugar. Because Gameboy cartridges aren’t exactly licensed like cups of sugar, I’m sure that all sorts of licensing laws are now being violated by the fourth graders at RBMS but that’s a topic for another class.
What’s interesting here though (and the point that I was afraid was going to be too much of a reach to convey to the kids) was what happened when I had the fourth volunteer pretend to “steal” one of the cartridges from one of the three members of the social network that he was not a part of: all of the kids in the class realized that the other two members of the network who were not having cartridges stolen had it in their best interest to protect the third member since that third member might have one of their cartridges on loan or have a cartridge that they wanted to borrow. The students realized the value in watching out for a neighborhood that they were invested in.
Clearly there are about a thousand other reasons why you’d want these kids to realize that the stealing of cartridges is wrong. However, being able to appeal to enlightened self-interest as a way to get people to look out for their neighborhood is a pretty good place to start.