Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What Educators Should Learn from the Harlem Shake

Kroc Preschool Harlem Shake Video
The Harlem Shake meme removes any last shred of doubt.  Many people, including young people, want to create, not just consume, video.  The Harlem Shake videos, each approximately thirty seconds long, feature an excerpt from the song of the same name.  A typical Harlem Shake video starts with one person, usually helmeted or masked, dancing alone in the middle of other people who are not focused on the dancer. Suddenly, the video cuts to the whole group doing a wild dance for the last half of the video.
High School Harlem Shake Video
Knowing that people love to consume YouTube videos, it is no surprise that there were 175 million views of the videos within weeks of the videos going viral. (Source: Wikipedia)
YouTube, however, is about creation, not just consumption. Recently, unique Harlem Shake videos were being uploaded at a rate of 4,000 per day!  Approximately 40,000 Harlem Shake videos were uploaded in the first two weeks of February.
Three- and four-year old children at Kroc preschool uploaded a Harlem Shake videoLawton-Bronson High School filmed one at an assembly. Young at heart seniors at Golden West Senior Living created a version as well. Steve Dembo (@Teach42), one of the most well-known proponents of digital storytelling in education, posted a version featuring workshop participants at the recent IntegratED 2013 conference in Portland.
Senior Citizens Harlem Shake Video
What led these four groups and 40,000 other groups of people to create a Harlem Shake video?
1.      Connectivity and widespread access to simple digital tools: It is incredibly easy for people to use their smart phone, iPad, laptop or other digital device to film, edit, and upload a video. The technical expertise involved with the Harlem Shake videos is minimal. As Wikipedia observes, “The Harlem Shake is technically very easy for fans to reproduce, as it consists of a single locked camera shot and one jump cut.”
2.      Opportunity for Creative Expression: Although the Harlem Shake videos have core elements, creators of the videos thrived on making unique versions.
3.      Opportunity to publish for a global audience: Harlem Shake videos have been uploaded and viewed around the world, including Western Europe, Eastern Europe, China, India, the Middle East and elsewhere. The Kroc preschool video, the Lawton-Bronson High School video, and the Golden West Senior Living video have received approximately 2000 hits, 33,000 hits, and 12,000 hits, respectively!
As reported by the New York Times, the viral popularity of Harlem Shake led Billboard magazine to change its ways. The last two years Billboard has considered including the number of YouTube plays as one of three factors that determine the ranking of the 100 hottest songs. The viral popularity of Harlem Shake ended this two-year discussion, with the 55-year old list now reflecting YouTube plays. Under the old system, the Harlem Shake song would have debuted in the top 15 of the list. With the new system, Harlem Shake debuted at the top spot.
What is the implication for educators?
IntegratED Harlem Shake Video
Let’s co-opt the power of creating digital stories for a global audience. As educators, let’s give students opportunities to create, not just consume, digital stories. Their engagement with digital storytelling will yield to deeper, longer-lasting learning.
Clearly the creation of a Harlem Shake video does not constitute a substantive intellectual exercise. But when students, turn their digital storytelling inclinations to other content, the learning potential is significant. For example, depending on the nature of digital storytelling, students will
·         write, revise, edit scripts;
·         research and analyze content related to the theme;
·         construct a persuasive argument; and
·         develop a unique voice based on a perspective that emerges after evaluation of content.

Some cynics may underestimate students in asserting that the enthusiasm they show for creating Harlem Shake videos will never be matched in more serious endeavors. These cynics are dead wrong. In the York County School Division in Virginia, we are partnering with Discovery Education to test a beta version of a platform that supports students as creators of digital content. To learn more, check out this post.

As much as the Harlem Shake videos have entertained millions, I know that our students’ videos will inform, persuade, inspire, and entertain us!
Related post:


  1. Nice post...Publishing to the web is key idea in true ownership. We should not ask to turn it in, but publish it. Connectedness....that is the key. One to the world, just about says it all.

    1. Publish, not turn it in - that's a great way of putting it. It's what I've been doing with my software development kids (seniors) --> put it on GitHub and deploy it so the world can see.

  2. Garth,
    Your work with students and other teachers in engaging students in publishing to the web is inspirational. Publishing the work for a global audience raises the bar for students-and they respond with high quality work!

  3. Love the post, thanks for explaining to me my own obsession with this! Our Puppet club made a quick version: http://youtu.be/YxPWsiEAKbo

  4. That's for including our video at IntegratED! I agree, there's something powerful at work here. It's not about where the idea came from, it's about taking it and making it your own. We're a remix culture, and this meme has demonstrated that more than any. It's the modern day equivalent of turning Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story... just in micro form and with a little more humping than I think many of us are comfortable with :)

    1. Taking it and making it your own is a compelling experience!

  5. Great post. It truly amazes me how a simple thought caught digitally can reach so many people.

  6. What's great about this activity is that it happens at breaktime and is student-driven. Memes are forms, like haiku that free people to be creative (after Daniel Meadows)

  7. Great post, Eric. I agree with you that this interest in creating content (particularly with the global audience) can be very appealing to students, even in academic work. My experience, though, has been that the focus of the assignment is critical. If the prompt for student work feels like "schooling" rather than "learning," my experience has been lukewarm response by students. But, with an interesting question that can be interpreted in multiple ways or even a unique angle on a common topic, students can get very energized in what Fred Newmann calls Authentic Intellectual Work.

    One example that I can think of was from an eighth grade U.S. History classroom. The teacher asked her students whether Lincoln really was the Great Emancipator or merely a political opportunist. While many of the students ended up creating films supporting the commonly held notion of Lincoln, they were drawn in by the "edgy" nature of the question and the fact that they were invited to take (and support) their own position on the question.

    In another example, rather than asking students to create a typical autobiography of an historical figure, teachers can challenge students to take a mythbusting approach. In one 5th grade classroom I observed, students were presented with a series of common historical myths (e.g., Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus because she was tired) and were tasked with busting the myth by using historical evidence.

    I think if we're strategic in what we ask students to do, we can leverage this energy and creativity to do substantive academic work.

  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cacofO2hKmU&feature=share


  9. There are so many important points here that teachers really need to pay attention to. Our students--all by themselves--are already becoming masters of online, of-the-moment media consumption and creation. I'm actually jealous that I didn't get to grow up in the YouTube/Facebook era. I was a kid who was always creating something. Imagine how much more I might have influenced the world and participated in a community had I been able to publish that art, music, drama, and writing! Teachers need to respond to, participate in, and instruct in home-grown media creation and evaluation techniques. This is a new form of authorship that we should channel and embrace if we hope for our students (and ourselves) to stay relevant, skilled, and influential in the coming decade. :)

    P.s. I'm a teacher blogger too! Come visit me if you fancy at www.universeastext.com :D

  10. Its a great pleasure reading your post.Its full of information I am looking for and I love to post a comment that "The content of your post is awesome" Great work. adv agency