In school the teachers get authority because they tell you they have authority. If the teacher tells you what to read, you read it. If the teacher tells you which sources are acceptable for your term paper, you use those sources. There is no room to question authority in the classroom because it would lead to chaos. And the number-one job of a teacher is to prevent the classroom from deteriorating into thirty kids overtaking one teacher.
We talk about authority a lot in my house because the kids need to know what sites are safe, what are fake, what sites they can spend money on and what sites are a scam. I teach them to look at the URL — the domain is what’s important, not the extension. I teach them to look for a way to contact people. But those are just beginner strategies. Learning to figure out who has authority and who is a poser – that’s a really important skill that takes practice.
Ironically, while school provides no ability to practice those skills, today’s workplace favors the person who is confident drawing their own conclusions about authority. And doing it fast. Because we are faced with decisions about who to trust online all the time. We are constantly gathering more information and turning into something new. The faster you can figure out the authority of the page you are looking at, the faster you can meet your goals.
Fact-based information. Information workers are paid to gather and synthesize information. Knowing where to look, how to get help, who to trust. These are skills you learn when you have to determine your own standards of authority.
The most obvious example of this is Wikipedia. For the most part, Wikipedia is reliable for academic topics. But did you know you can look at page rank to see an algorithm for authority? Did you know that you can look at the editorial process for a given entry in order to determine the strength of the page’s authority? (A lot of editorial contributions is good—it keeps people honest. But too many contributions will land the page on the Edit Wars List.)
School doesn’t teach these skills for sniffing out authority because then schools would have to admit that you don’t need teachers to spoon feed kids information—they can get it all online when they need it.
Photo-based information. Increasingly communication is visual. Generation Z uses emoji rather than words to convey deeper meaning than many people could get from words. Young people also use YouTube like Generation X uses Google, the ultimate source of everything you’d ever want to know.
But if communication is visual than how do you know which visuals have authority? The old rules don’t apply. Dutch twentysomething Zilla van den Born shows this in her clever depiction of a gap-year in Southeast Asia that never happened.
That’s a picture of her visiting a temple. And here she is in another cliched photo of exciting travels.
It’s just that her travels never happened. She is making fun of the idea that travel somehow makes a person. But she’s done it in such a realistic way that she is also making fun of how too often we take photos at face value.
Community. The best part of the Internet is the community behind it. At first blush, Reddit looks like something from another era with it’s non-user-friendly interface and lack of pictures. But Reddit is actually one of the most powerful communities online. Communities that look slick, like Glam, are actually more often only a shell for a community with nothing significant going on.
There are ways to judge communities. Dooce.com, for example, has so many hoops to jump through in order to participate that it’s gotta be good. Top 10 best dating sites ranks communities based on specific factors in the same way that you can get rankings for math sites or science sites. And social sharing is a quick way to find out if a so-called community is engaged. (That’s the metric I use here to decide if a post is a gem or a flop.)
Instruction style. Authority for teachers looks staid and organized and official in the standard classroom. But online, the most engaging courses are not from the big names in academia. In fact, Stanford is having younger, non-tenured professors teach online courses because too many famous professors are slow and dry on video. Online courses work best with a teacher who is fun and engaging, who are establishing authority from connecting with the students rather than speaking at them.
The up tight old-school measures of authority don’t work for us today. Not even at top universities. Which means that kids who go to school and pay attention to the teachers are, at some point, going to find themselves disconnected from the source of real authority and they will have to seek it out for themselves.
That’s why the real job of education should be to teach kids how to find their own sources of authority. Who do you trust? Who can you learn from? What sources speak to you in a way that engages your curiosity? These are the questions that kids need to ask so they are ready for the work world that awaits.