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Vocab activities for your classroom

On "Like" Minds and Free Speech

In this Wordshop article, Susan Ebbers considers how interest influences student learning. She focuses on a timely legal question sure to interest students and engage them in debate: whether Facebook "likes" count as free speech. 

For more than 30 years, psychologists have examined how interest influences learning and memory for children and adults. Interest is a motivational variable, an energizer. What makes a lesson, text, or task more likely to capture our interest?

  • If we think a topic is relevant to us, we are more likely to take an interest.
  • If the topic is novel, offering something new, it is likely to capture our immediate attention, our spontaneous interest.
  • If a topic or text incites a sense of fear, betrayal, sacrificial love, injustice, etc., we are more likely to feel "emotionally interested" in it.
  • If the topic offers sufficient complexity, our interest is likely to deepen.
  • If we engage in respectful dialogue about the topic, conversing in small groups, we are more likely to remain interested, even several weeks later.

There are other variables that influence interest, including self-efficacy for the task, prior knowledge of the topic, comprehensibility of the text or instructions, and several other individual differences. (See my white paper on interest and reading comprehension, published by the Center for Learning and Development.)

Recently, I came across a legal case that made me wish I were still a teacher, because the case should capture the interest of many older students, for most of the reasons cited above. This case pertains to the First Amendment and the definition of speech as expressed in the click-speak of social media.

In Hampton, Virginia, deputy sheriff Daniel Ray Carter, Jr. clicked the Facebook "like" button for his boss's political rival. His erstwhile boss, the sheriff, fired him. Carter sued, claiming a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech, with the argument that "liking" someone is comparable to posting a campaign sign in your front yard. Federal Judge Raymond Jackson seemed to think that "like" does not constitute sufficient "speech" for the courts to interpret or act upon. He basically ruled against the expressability of the word as used in a social media context, when "like" is all she wrote.

The judge decided that "liking" a page, in the absence of more elaborative "actual statements" does not warrant protection under the First Amendment. Carter appealed. Recently, the ACLU and Facebook's attorneys filed amicus briefs in support of Carter, and in a broader sense, in support of the validity of speech expressed in shorthand through social media, including tweeting, liking, etc. (See the Washington Post for more. )

Further afield, the Times of India is taking a more pragmatic approach to the whole debate. For them, it seems to be a matter of business and relationship. The title of the post is fairly clear: "Don't 'Like' FB Pages of Your Boss' Rival."

Implications for Instruction: This case lends itself to discussion and debate — which fosters interest — supported by research and discovery. Encourage students to explore the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, the source document (archives.gov). Then, encourage them to examine how the courts interpret and apply it (e.g., see Cornell School of Law). Finally, facilitate discussion, applying the amendment to this new case.

Some Discussion Prompts:

  • How often do you use FB-style "like" buttons?
  • As a first reaction, do you agree with the judge's ruling? Why or why not?
  • What is speech?
  • Does speech include written language and sign language, as well as spoken language?
  • How many "words" are required to claim the expression of speech? Why?
  • Describe the differences between meaningful, elaborative speech and superficial, instantaneous speech?
  • Would you ever NOT want your "like" count to be taken seriously and/or posted publicly? Under what circumstances?
  • What does "like" express, via FB? Does it always convey the same intent, in every case? (See the Visual Thesaurus word map for "like.")
  • Are all FB "likes" legitimate? (See San Francisco Weekly, citing 83 million bogus FB accounts.)
  • After investigation, reflection, and discussion, how do you now feel about the judge's ruling? Why?

Lesson Extension: Consider assigning a culminating speech, debate, or writing assignment.

Linking the Lesson Back to the Research:

This lesson should foster interest in many older students, because the topic is relevant to learners who use FB-style "like" buttons and who are interested in employee rights and relations. Discussion prompts are included in the lesson because collaboration has been found to foster interest, in many cases. However, some individuals become less interested when made to converse and collaborate with peers.

By seeking student opinion of the ruling, we allow them to take sides and, in so doing, they may become more emotionally involved in the topic — especially if they feel the ruling was not just. Interest is nourished by both our intellect and our emotions. Some psychologists claim that interest is primarily an emotional response.

By learning more about the First Amendment and the definition of "speech" and "like," students develop more knowledge. Edward Lee Thorndike, a pioneer in educational psychology, stated in his 1906 book The Principles of Teaching, "Knowledge breeds interest…As soon as the high-school pupil can really read German, he is likely to gain an interest in it."

As learners grow in knowledge, they also grow in self-efficacy, relative to the topic. According to a good deal of research, interest grows as self-efficacy grows. It is difficult to remain interested in a topic or task that we perceive as too confusing and too challenging. On the other hand, success promotes interest. By creating lessons that provide carefully sequenced, success-oriented encounters with the task, self-efficacy and interest is nurtured incrementally, so that these critical motivators are more likely in the higher-stakes culminating project (e.g., the suggested essay, speech, or debate, etc.).

This lesson should work to inspire interest. However, there is no magic formula for promoting interest. Despite the research on collaboration, when all is said and done, interest takes hold in the heart and mind of the individual learner. If teachers notice that interest is growing in a subset of learners, they can nurture it (e.g., provide books and articles on the topic, field trips, projects, and collaborative studies, etc.). The development of individual interest is one of the highest goals of education.


Susan Ebbers is the creator of Vocabulogic, an edublog focusing on word knowledge and linguistic insight. She is a former K-8 teacher and principal, a Cambium Learning curriculum author, a national literacy consultant, and a doctoral candidate. Her research interests pertain to word-learning aptitude, measurement design, and motivation theory. In her spare time she writes poetry, including the Jamie's Journey series of children’s books. Visit her website or follow her on Facebook.


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