Generation Z - #memyselfieandi

We have arrived at Generation Z. It is this so-called iGeneration that we currently teach. For them, familiarity with the Internet and social media started from a young age. They grew up in the early days of Web 2.0, and are much maligned as the most narcissistic generation ever. They are nothing if not self-obsessed. So, anyway, the narrative goes. There is no doubt some truth to the claim. In conversation, one teenager I know – in fact, he lives in my house – acknowledged as much: “Yes,” he said, with solemnity, “we are narcissistic. Sure.”

To the extent that the current generation excels in self-regard, we should probably be careful to rush to judge; critical judgment, instant and unequivocal, is a feature of our time, and advanced by social media and the concomitant communicating technologies that surround us.

Even if self-love is at an all time high, there is evidence to suggest that this is paralleled by increased instances of mental health problems amongst the young. And, in a world of globalized competition in education and industry, an uncertainty around the future of work, crises of ecology, massive population movements, and a neoliberal zeitgeist that champions individualism and celebrates celebrity, there is a lot to be anxious about.

Today’s young people are certainly not shirkers. Evidence suggests that the current generation of teenagers, allowing for cultural and societal variation, have less down time than their parents, and drink less alcohol and take fewer drugs than their parents at a similar age. If this is true, and even if it is a function of narcissism, the preference for the gym over the pub is arguably a good thing.

The lesson ideas (a 'scheme of work', if you prefer) on this page are a good way of exploring the concept of culture, and particularly the popular culture of the present. The particular focus is on the ‘selfie’, a relatively recent, but ubiquitous social and technological phenomenon (the term ‘selfie’ having entered the OED in 2013). There are also clear links to Theory of Knowledge (TOK).

Many opportunities are provided for discussion and reflection. We hope the activities are relevant and engaging, giving occasion for individual and group reflection, but not, we also hope, for self-loathing. After all, the present generation, were born to a culture that preexisted them, and has shaped them since. Moreover, today’s youngsters may not all be ‘special’, but they have much to be proud of.

Teachers too may reflect for a moment: Where youngsters – with Generation Z names like Day and Thornton, rather than plain old David and Tim – have been told by parents and secondary caregivers that they are special, and have since then found the truth hard to deal with, where should we apportion blame, if we think blame is appropriate at all?

Possible Guiding Conceptual Questions

  • How are social values established and transmitted over time? 
  • To what extent do different (i.e. separate) cultures exist? To what extent do different cultures share values and beliefs?
  • To what extent can we regard 'teenagers' as a category of people who have a shared culture? To the extent that teenagers do have a shared culture, what values do they share?

Opening Plenary: A Whole-Class Discussion

Ask students to consider and freely debate the following:

The 16th/17th century philosopher Rene Descartes famously wrote cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).

Today, in an era of social media and selfies, our sense of self may have shifted from Descartes’ proposition – I think, therefore I am – to ‘I am what I think others think I am.”

  • Is this a reasonable assertion to make? Why? Why not?

Activity 1: Researching Social Values in the 21st Century

Activities 1 and 2 develop important Approaches to Learning (ATL) skills. They are intended to get students thinking about contemporary social values, and to conduct and evaluate research. 

Instructions to students:

Survey the social values of your class, year group, or school. Try to survey, if possible, a reasonably large sample.

Construct and use a Likert Scale (i.e. a scaling response survey) that elicits the following responses:

  • extremely important
  • important
  • moderately important
  • not that important
  • not at all important.

Ask participants to respond to the following statements (ensuring them of their anonymity):

Rate on the social attitudes survey how important you think the following 3 things are:

  1. Finding purpose and meaning in life
  2. Making a contribution to society
  3. Having lots of money

Collate your results and, as a class, discuss what you think the implications may be. Consider also the limitations of the survey; that is, how valid and reliable are the results? What factors could have affected the results?

The social attitudes survey is an example of a quantitative research technique. On the basis of what the research data seems to reveal, conduct further (follow-up) qualitative research. This may be, for example, interviews or focus groups. Do this individually or in pairs. When conducting this kind of research it is good to have an inventory of open-ended questions you want to ask. Equally, it is important to listen to respondents and follow-up on what they say (i.e. maintain an open mind). Ensure participants are given assurance of their anonymity and respect their integrity – this is very important.

When, as a class, you have completed your qualitative research, return to the class, and give mini-presentations on your findings. What was interesting? What was surprising? What can be concluded?

Discuss the research project as a class:

  • What went well?
  • What went less well?
  • What do the results suggest about your generation and their values?

Activity 2: Debating Social Values in the 21st Century: A Jigsaw Discussion

Instructions to students:

As far as possible, form equally sized groups. For this activity, groups of 4 will work particularly well. Present the following task to students:

For students: Discuss the following assertions (below) for 15 minutes, ensuring you probe the assertions thoroughly, allowing everyone in the group to present their view:

  • Teenagers today are the most self-absorbed generation ever. They are interested in themselves and their own lives, but are much less interested in other people.
  • The role of social media in social life is a major factor contributing to self-absorption and narcissistic tendencies amongst today’s teenagers. 

Next, students form specialist groups, with each student from the initial groupings assigned one of the following questions (below) for discussion. Ensure that students discuss the assertions above before the questions below are revealed.

For students: In your specialist groups, spend 15 minutes, discussing one of the following questions (as assigned by your teacher). Probe thoroughly and contribute equally:

  • A 1965 survey revealed that 45% of US freshmen considered being well off to be important. A subsequent survey in 2004 revealed that the percentage had increased to 74%. Problems of data collection notwithstanding, do these surveys reveal that young people are increasingly concerned by wealth? Why might this tendency exist in society?
  • In a British survey of 2006, over half of 18-25 year olds named becoming famous as a generational priority. Since 2006, do you think the percentage has risen, fallen, or remained similar? To what degree should the results of the 2006 survey concern us?
  • Between 2006 and 2008, Facebook went from having 12 million users to 150 million users. Between 2007 and 2008, Twitter went from having 400,000 tweets per quarter to 100,000 million tweets per quarter. Whilst these statistics are a little dated, and Facebook and Twitter may rise or fall, the general social tendency is towards increased use of social media. To what extent is this problematic?
  • Allison was teenager from the US city of Atlanta. She featured in an MTV series “My Super Sweet 16”. For her birthday, she asked for Peachtree Street to be blocked off to enable her to make a “grand entrance”. Allison was told that Peachtree Street was a major thoroughfare with a hospital where ambulances come and go. In response, Allison said, “they can wait one second. Or they can just go around.” To what extent is Allison’s apparent selfishness typical of behavior in society generally?

Students reform their original groups, reporting back from their specialist group discussions. Allow 15 minutes for this discussion.

Follow-up with a whole class discussion for about 10 minutes.

Conclude with the following question (projecting this image if you want to) for general discussion:

In 2006, the prestigious magazine Time, awarded its person of the year to YOU. 2006 was also the year that the first iPhone was released. What do you think these events reveal about modern life? Is it possible to avoid self-absorption? How could we become less iFocused?

Write an Essay - Add it to Student Portfolios

Instructions to students:

Write an essay of about 800 - 1000 words: In the 21st century, we have tended to become more money obsessed. Makeover shows are popular on television. More people are reporting a personal, mystical direct connection with God. ADHD drugs such as Ritalin are increasingly used to help people work longer and remain focused for longer. Unusual baby names are increasingly common. Increasingly, books are using self-referential language. Founders of ‘start-up companies’ are often revered as the gurus of our age. To what extent, and in what ways, do you think that (some of) these phenomena are interrelated? What is suggested about society and contemporary culture?

Activity 3: A Carousel Discussion

Selfies: Something New? Art Reinvented?

Ask students to sit in two circles, an outer circle and an inner circle, with circle members facing each other.

Show/project/share the following handout to students (below). It shows the following: A self portrait by Rembrandt, a selfie taken by the artist Nina Katchadourian, and a selfie taken by me (David, one of your InThinking authors).

 Image 1

Tell students that each of these images are self-referential. One is a painting. Two are photographs. The painting was done by Rembrandt, a 15th century Dutch artist, and the other two selfies are much more recent. Given what students see, ask them this: Is an interest in the self something new? Have we always been self-obsessed? Is there an increase in self-obsession?

Move students in the outer circle one or two places clockwise, giving them a new partner in the inner circle. Ask them this: What are the similarities and differences between the images? Are they all examples of art? How do you know?

Selfies: The Role of the Author

Students can continue to sit in their two circles, but rotate the outer circle once again in a clockwise direction. Students should have a new partner.

Show/project/share the following handout to students (below). It shows a self-portrait of van Gogh and (again) David, one of your InThinking authors.

 Image 2

Tell the students that one of the images is a self-portrait by the 19th century Dutch painter, van Gogh. The other image is a contemporary selfie. Ask the students this: What can you tell about the authors (i.e. the painter and photographer) simply by viewing each image? After a period of consideration, tell (or remind) the students that van Gogh was said to suffer from mental illness and ask them this: Given that van Gogh was thought mad, does your understanding of the image change? Then ask this: Is the author of the selfie also mad? Does it matter? That is, does contextual knowledge of the photographer (author) contribute to your understanding of the selfie (text)?

Selfies: Art and Intentionality

Students can continue to sit in their two circles, but rotate the outer circle once again in a clockwise direction. Students should have a new partner.

Show/project/share the following handout to students (below). It shows a selfie. Again, it is of David.

 Image 3

Ask the students this: Is this selfie a work of art? What is the basis for your claim? After a few moments for discussion, ask the students this: The man who took this photograph vigorously defends his assertion that this is art. He has called the image ‘Mohawk Days’. His intention was to create art, and he says it is. Is it art?

Selfies in Cross-cultural Perspective

Students can continue to sit in their two circles, but rotate the outer circle once again in a clockwise direction. Students should have a new partner.

Show/project/share the following handout to students (below). It shows an image of two (somewhat reluctant) teenage ‘actors’ related to the author (David).

 Image 4

Put it to students that it has been anecdotally suggested that there exists a cross-cultural difference in ‘selfie culture’. That is, in the ‘West’ selfie culture is concerned with the self, whereas cultures in the ‘East’ tend to take dyadic or group images – ‘usies’ rather than selfies – reflecting the dominance of community in the ‘East’ in contrast to the individualism in the ‘West”. If this is true, it confirms what we think we know about globalization; specifically that homogeneity and heterogeneity co-exist within globalization.

Ask students this: Is it possible that selfie culture – the way we take selfies – reveals a fundamental difference between the individualism of the ‘West’, and more group focused cultures in the ‘East”? Are there generational differences in the way people take and present selfies?

Next, tell the students that there is anecdotal evidence that the selfie capital of the world is in fact the Philippines. Conventionally, we think of the Philippines as being in the ‘East’. Ask students why the Philippines might be the selfie capital of the world. Next, ask this: Is it at all useful to use terms such as ‘West’ and ‘East’ in a globalized world? 

Activity 4: Selfies and Gendered Identities - Putting Kim Kardashian on Trial

Show your class some images (see below) of the ‘celebrity’, Kim Kardashian. Probe and elicit a general sense of what students think about Ms. Kardashian and her apparent predilection for selfies.

 Image 5

Organise your class for a trial. You will need a judge, prosecution and defence counsels, expert witnesses, and jury members.

Ms. Kardashian has been charged, through the intentional promulgation and proliferation of her selfies with contributing to the gratuitous and ongoing objectification of women, and exploitation of her audience.

Prosecute and defend the case.

Activity 5: Selfies - A Conventional Debate

Debate the following proposition: Selfies have a net negative impact on individuals and society.

  • Generally, it is claimed that selfies are harmful. They contribute to a culture that is increasingly selfish and self-regarding. At the level of the individual, selfies are detrimental to self-esteem; measuring self-worth against others is a destructive habit, and an inevitable outcome of sharing selfies on social media. At worst, selfie culture contributes to feelings of worthlessness, mental health problems and, potentially, to suicide.
  • A contrary argument may, however, be made. Selfies are, in fact, empowering, not least for individuals. They exist as a creative and democratic act of self-expression. Moreover, selfies democratize photography. Photographic art, assuming access to technology, becomes possible for the many, not the few. Selfies enable us to communicate important messages about ourselves and our world. Finally, if people do not like selfies or the culture that surrounds selfies, they may simply turn off their machines and opt out.

Towards Assessment: The Individual Oral

Ask students to take a range of selfies. These selfies become primary texts. These primary texts can be used as a non-literary 'body of work' for the Individual Oral. Students will want to find another literary text and a global issue with which to develop a presentation of ideas. It is probably better to give autonomy to students as to which global issue they would like to pursue. Matching selfies with a literary work and anchoring it to a global issue may require an imaginative leap, but there are surely connections that can be made to, for example, identity, culture and community; imagination, creativity, and art; health and wellbeing; and teachnology and the environment.

Towards Assessment: Analysing Visual Texts for Paper 1, Guided Textual Analysis

The ability to analyse and write meaningfully about visual texts is an essential skill for Paper 1 examinations. In preparing for this, try the following activity:

Ask students to take a range of selfies. Print the selfies (there is a strangeness in this!), and ask students to write about a selection of their images. Add to the student's Learner Portfolio. This may be done after some pre-teaching in which students are given guidance in how to analyse photographs.

Once students have written their own analysis, ask students to swap selfies with a peer, and to write an analysis of their peer's selfies. It is an apparent paradox that most people do not like other people’s selfies. The selfies of others are simply narcissistic acts of puerile self-presentation. However, we invoke an exception when we take selfies ourselves. These selfies, in contrast to the selfies taken by others, are witty, playful, and self ironic. At the same time, we have, we hope, a tendency to avoid deliberately hurting the feelings of others. Thus, it can be interesting to compare and contrast one's own views with the views of others. Such an activity highlights the polivocal nature of texts, the role of the artist in artistic creation, and the role of the reader.

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