“Truth, Lies and the Internet”…what we need to teach our children.

Microprocessor control in projects designed and made by some of our pupils.

Anyone of a certain age will know that, somewhat ruefully we reflect on the seeming ease with which children use technology.  A student who stayed after school for two hours until he could get his phone back from the head teacher assured me that it was more than just a phone, it was his calendar, his alarm clock, his social life, even his torch.  Without his phone, he assured me, his life would stop.   Children are no longer born with a silver spoon in their mouths but with a mobile phone glued to their ear  . Well the recently published report from Demos, a UK based think tank, from which I have borrowed the title suggest what a lot of teachers have suspected for some time, children might be using the internet a lot but not a lot of them are using it with intelligence.  If you want the full report then follow this link;  http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/truth-lies-and-the-internet

The report makes fascinating and disturbing reading.  The writers identify what they term digital fluency as a critical skill for every internet user but especially the young for whom it is fast becoming the dominant from of access to information and services.  They also identify a worrying lack of cynicism about the content, authorship and veracity of what information s retrieved.  An alarming proportion of young people never check websites they visit,  either for the source of the material or for the accuracy of the information.  ( If at this point you feel the need to find out how to do this for yourself then a good place to start is ; http://novemberlearning.com/ , click the resources tab and scroll down to the information literacy resources.)  

Most teachers got wise to the copy and paste research task a long time ago, some actively teach pupils why this is a bad idea, others use anti plagiarism software.  I find that most children are still what I call “lazy lookers”; given a research task most will default to Google and the majority will do an image search.  I find I have to teach rigorously the idea of intelligent selection of information, even images.  There is a remarkable degree of trust that if you enter a search term you will automatically get valid and useful information.  (Sometimes our much cursed school filtering system gets in the way, if you can think of a reason why my pupils cannot search the term “dolls house” half of me wants to know what it is and half of me really doesn’t! )   The possible consequence of this blind faith in search engines is a world construct for our pupils based on an extraordinary ammount of suspect, false or at worst deceitful information.  Research findings quoted by Demos suggest that a very large percentage of children are confident of their ability to discern between good and bad information whereas a vanishingly small percentage are in fact using valid means of doing so.  In short it seems that digital natives are confident but not competent.

So what do we do?  My school has just stopped teaching discreet ICT to our younger pupils, the argument being that what I do within my subject is much more purposive, taught to a higher standard by specialist teachers and used to solve real problems.  What Demos have discovered suggests that we had better be careful how and where we are teaching the skills of discernment and judgement that make the internet a profoundly powerful tool.  We already go to considerable lengths to teach our children specifically about how to stay safe on line with an emphasis on child protection, is it time that we started to teach them how to stay intellectually safe as well?  Demos are very clear that they are not advocating any form of censorship but they acknowledge that the filtering produced by the mechanisms of search engines is in effect producing a form of censorship all of it’s own.

One of the consequences of working in a small school is that you are frequently called on to teach outside your specialism, which is my excuse for teaching ICT.  In my subject we use it all the time both software design packages and internet.  Having seen the results of  “lazy looking” I spend a lot of time working through the issues with classes and developing their critical awareness.  One ways in which I do this is by telling them some outrageous untruths with a perfectly straight face.  The game is to see how long I can keep the perfectly confident explanation going before someone gets the picture.  A word of warning is in order here, you really should give the game away before they go home and discuss the day with their parents otherwise………   During one ICT lesson I solemnly told my class of 11 year olds that they should always check what they were told.  “Even by teachers?” came the shocked question, to which my answer was, “Especially by teachers”.  A small but loyal voice asked, “Even Ms Dewhirst?”   I took a swift mental review of our new head of English, judged her to be up for it and responded, “Especially her”.   How long do you think it was between the end of the lesson and them telling Ms Dewhirst?  To her credit my new colleague asked a few questions and then simply pointed out that I was a teacher and therefore untrustworthy as well.  She later told me that there were some very puzzled faces as they left her class, who could they trust?

Sometimes it is good to leave them with a question, not the answer.

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