Redefining Geek: Changing the Game in Tech Education

Thirteen years ago I was a new educator at Global Kids in New York City. I was co-leading an ambitious virtual summer camp called “I Dig Zambia” in collaboration with the Field Museum of Chicago. Along with all the challenges of putting on a science camp with 20+ students in two locations, I had been told that a researcher was going to be observing us the whole time. 

I wish I could say I greeted this news graciously, but to be honest I think I may have resisted the idea to my boss. We had a ton of things that could go wrong and I worried it would be captured in some academic study forever. 

And then Cassidy Puckett showed up, a bespeckled young white woman carrying a notebook and a pen, assuring us that we would barely notice she was there. She stayed with our group for a week, after having just observed our Chicago collaborators and their students. She took furious notes, quietly chatted with students on the side, and then disappeared like a ninja a few days later.

I haven’t thought about that moment until now when I finished reading Cassidy Puckett’s new book Redefining Geek. Bias and the Five Hidden Habits of Tech-Savvy Teens (2022). Dr. Cassidy Puckett, now an assistant professor at Emory University, has become one of the leading researchers investigating how young people engage with technology in the Digital Age.

I was so pleased to get an early copy of Redefining Geek a couple of weeks ago. I hoped to get deeper insights into the inner lives of young people that might inform my work as the manager of digital learning at KQED Education. I got that and a lot more, I’m pleased to report.

Puckett’s central idea is that there are five basic habits that tech-savvy teens practice in their daily lives:

  1. A willingness to try and fail
  2. Management of frustration and boredom 
  3. Use of models
  4. Design logic (thinking about why technology is designed the way it is and how to use it for one’s own purpose)
  5. Efficiencies (identifying shortcuts)

By reframing tech ability beyond something innate that some kids have and others don’t, she makes the case that these habits can be measured, observed, and cultivated in young people by parents, teachers and others. And these habits get us past the naive notion that only certain kinds of people – male, white or Asian, introverted – are predisposed to fill these tech roles in society. 

I have a lot of takeaways from this book pertaining to the educator-focused programs we lead at KQED Education. Puckett’s work has helped clarify a lot of the ways that we work to foster these habits in teachers so they can translate those insights into their own teaching. Specifically:

  1. A willingness to try and fail: We take an iterative design perspective on the media that we teach. We encourage teachers to not shy away from mistakes, flubs, and bloopers in their work, to show their students that perfection is not the goal and that we are all learners. 
  2. Management of boredom and frustration: We acknowledge when we are introducing topics that don’t seem the most exciting to our teachers, like copyright, reading Terms of Service agreements, and federal privacy laws. I’m excited to find new ways of teaching students how to manage unpleasant feelings while they are creating.
  3. Use of models: In our programs, we show teachers how to get help in multiple ways – from consulting local experts to peer learning to looking online for resources and tips. 
  4. Design logic: We go beyond teaching our audience how to use a particular tool or application and focus on the general design framework that underlies most graphic editors and media production software.
  5. Efficiencies: We highlight some tips and tricks to help teachers get media projects done, like creating a tripod out of common objects in the classroom. But I think we can do more to emphasize this habit.

I’m excited to explore with my team more ways we can foster these habits in our teachers and their students! So many possibilities.

On a more macro-level, I am still wrestling with the competing reasons for teaching digital literacies to young people. Puckett highlights three commonly cited goals of tech education:

  • To help individuals get ahead
  • To serve the needs of the market
  • To create a more equitable society

The reality is that these are not mutually reinforcing goals. The focus on improving individual life outcomes can privilege only a small number of “special” folks while leaving others behind. And you can help the American tech industry do better while not actually improving peoples’ lives who work in those industries or use those technologies. So really it’s decreasing social inequities that is the hardest but most worthwhile goal that I am interested in examining further in our work at KQED Education. 

I like how Puckett compares tech competencies to basic literacy:

Why insist that everyone should know how to read? It’s not just for the benefit of employers or individuals but because we understand that democracy requires equality of “democratic agency” and that agency includes a common set of broad competencies.

After reading Redefining Geek, I feel invigorated, validated and challenged in my work as a media literacy educator. If you are interested in finding ways of empowering all young people – particularly BIPOC, female and poor kids – to succeed in the Digital Age, check out Redefining Geek. 

NOTE: I received an advance copy of this book from Cassidy Puckett

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