TikTok lessons: Why students should become the new creators

Could elements of TikTok’s appeal be integrated into curriculum design?
Courtney Welsh
Courtney Welshhttps://gng.org/
Courtney Welsh was a founding member and chief operating officer of the NYC Leadership Academy, and has consulted for organizations such as the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and the Aspen Institute. Courtney holds a M.Ed. from Harvard University and an executive level certificate from Columbia Graduate School of Business. She is currently the CEO of Global Nomads Group.

In an era dominated by social media and user-generated content, educators face fierce competition for the fleeting attention of young minds. Take for example, my teenage daughter’s request for the condensed version of the Russian and Ukrainian conflict, preferring the “TikTok version to the textbook version.”

TikTok’s short videos are so wildly popular among young people that they’re spurring protests against potential bans by Congress. It’s worth considering: What makes TikTok so captivating and why are so many drawn to its original user-generated content? Could elements of TikTok’s appeal be integrated into curriculum design?

If students created their own learning content, rather than passively consuming adult-produced materials, educators could more effectively capture and hold their attention. My decades in youth development have shown me the limitless creativity that students bring to their learning experiences when given the chance.

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It’s time to rethink the traditional educational model that positions adults as the gatekeepers of knowledge and students as passive recipients. Imagine the possibilities if those responsible for creating learning content unleashed the creativity that young people show on TikTok and applied it to generating curricula. How better to ensure that content is meaningful and engaging to students than by involving them in its design?

Publishers must upend the model of adults as providers and youth as receivers or—at best, reviewers—and let young people have a deeper role in designing their own learning.

Leveraging students’ social media savvy

Engaging students is a national priority for educators, with formal efforts led by the National Education Association, who highlight issues that have an unmistakable impact on students’ engagement, like attendance and hunger. But what about classroom content? TikTok and other social platforms demonstrate the concept often called “mirrors and windows.” They inspire and hold young people’s interest by reflecting their own experiences and connecting them with others’.

Global Nomads Group, the organization I lead, is grounded in this concept. With similar inspiration but founded a decade before the first social media was created, our mission is to build connections among young people through safe digital spaces where they can express themselves, share their stories, and connect with peers.

We’ve launched an internship program for youth to create online courses on topics of interest to them. Navigating borders, datelines, and cultures, more than 150 young people from 26 countries have worked remotely to craft online courses on a wide range of issues using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a guide.

With their classmates and peers as their target audience, they design age-appropriate course materials aligned with recognized learning standards like CASEL’s and the Asia Society Global Competence standards. Using curriculum design backward mapping tools derived from the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue, they plan their curricula, collaborate in multinational, multicultural, youth-led teams, organize their planning meetings and work responsibilities, and create multimedia learning content and tools.

The interns’ content is compelling, resonating with their peers, who have a keen sensibility for detecting authenticity. Young people possess a natural understanding of what might hook their classmates. The cohort working on what would eventually become our ‘Student To World’ Women’s Rights course began the unit focusing on beauty standards. Rather than diving into a drier history or reviewing terms or policies, they found a way to make the topic relatable and universal. Students see themselves in the content.

This generation can produce substantive and rigorous educational content through teamwork, curiosity and determination. They are unafraid to tackle challenging conversations and broach taboo subjects. More often than not, they surpass educational standards with finesse and maturity, handling feedback with grace and curiosity, particularly on topics like ableism and disability justice in learning design.

As the future of TikTok in the US hangs in the balance, its appeal to youth offers lessons for education. Social media platforms like TikTok have something to offer learners. A carefully crafted design can capture and use their benefits for instructional materials while managing their negative aspects.

Following the usual recipes will fail to engage students in a way that will encourage them to seek out knowledge in school settings. Imagine young people uniting en masse to advocate for and create their classroom content!

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