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Six Steps to Move Students from Cynicism to Optimism

It was exactly 50 years ago that the Internet was born. In the fall of 1969, two letters were typed and transmitted online, forever altering the way knowledge, information, and communication happens among humans.

On Oct. 29, 1969, Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at UCLA and his grad student, Charley Kline, sent a transmission from UCLA’s computer to a computer at Stanford University’s Research Institute through ARPANET, the forerunner to what we now call the internet. ARPANET connected universities that worked with the department of defense, now called DARPA. That year, just four universities even had computers. They were room-sized contraptions that required an air conditioner under the floor to keep them from overheating.

Believe it or not, the message Kleinrock sent was actually an accident. He meant to send the word, “login” but only got two letters out, L and O, before the system crashed. No more words or letters were sent. Today, people now recall the message as “Hello” or “L-O.” It took an hour to send the transmission, but by then, LO was cemented in history as the first message ever sent as electronic mail. One hour was far shorter than the time receivers had to wait for a letter in the mail, and it would be years before the first fax machine could send and receive messages in real time. The typo was a breakthrough.

Two years later, the first official email was sent by MIT researcher Ray Tomlinson and also the first time the “@” sign was used to designate a specific recipient of a message. The World Wide Web didn’t come along for another 20 years, in 1989, when we began to build websites and communicate through them.

Little did we know the era that was about to begin.

What This Era Has Done to Students

I don’t know many people who wish we’d never entered the world of the internet. It’s made our communication faster, our work more efficient, and our lives more convenient. In retrospect, most of us would agree life is better in this age.

At the same time, Generation Z (today’s students) are growing up with a downside.

One of the unintended consequences of this “information age” is cynicism. We know the downside of every news report; we hear the dark side of every hero’s story; and we’re exposed to fake news as well as real news. In short, we know too much at an early age.

Journalist Deborah Stachelski reminds us, “The spiral of negativity into cynical feelings [is fostered] when we see our Facebook or Instagram friends excelling or enjoying life in ways that we aren’t, or can’t.” Even though some of the information we consume is not “bad news” it’s just too much news. It’s an overwhelming amount of information. What we didn’t know until recently is that too much information tends to make our brains skeptical and jaded. It’s one reason why a young child is typically innocent, full of wonder and trust. As we age and become informed, we also become the opposite—less trusting, less innocent, and less imaginative. We mock. We get sarcastic. We sneer.

Why? Because we’re skeptical.

Six Steps to Move Students from Cynicism to Optimism

Here are some action steps you can take with students to lessen the cynicism and raise the optimism in this information and intelligence age.

1. Help them practice imagining the best-case scenario, not just the worst.

Encourage them to refuse to let the unknown paralyze them. Empower them to write down their best possible moments from their past as a starting point. If they bring up potential negative scenarios, request they also talk about positive ones.

2. Help them become a producer, not just a consumer.

People who are producing—not merely consuming—are more prone to see the glass half full. The person who is rowing the boat has less time to rock the boat. Get your students involved in solving a problem or doing something positive daily.

3. Enable them to focus on their strengths and what they can do about a problem.

This idea is kin to number two above. Once your students identify their strengths, focus on how they can use them to solve problems and serve people. It’s hard to be apathetic or complacent when using your talents for a worthwhile cause.

4. Take them places where they can see solutions in progress.

Negative people have either neglected to consider all the positive improvements being made in the world, or they have never seen it. One way to turn cynicism into optimism is to observe or participate in projects where progress is being made.

5. Agree to a limit on social media time and too much comparison.

As I mentioned above, part of our negativity is we see others staging fun activities, and we begin to compare our lives to theirs. Two-hour daily limits for social media is the recommendation of psychologist Jean Twenge to reduce negative emotions.

6. Hold a competition to smile more and greet more people each day.

This is one sure-fire way to become more optimistic. Choose to smile and choose to say hello to people, even strangers, every day. If possible, make it a competition between you and the students. Sometimes attitudes really do follow actions.


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Social & Emotional Learning

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Habitudes for Social & Emotional Learning helps middle and high school students:

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  • And many more social and emotional skills

Click on the link below today to learn more about Habitudes for Social & Emotional Learning!

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4 Comments

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Six Steps to Move Students from Cynicism to Optimism