Head in the Sand

I was following a discussion on a mailing list today about the various internet blocking and filtering policies that different schools implement. Someone said their school was revising their fitering/blocking policy and wanted to know what others were doing. From the replies I saw, it seems that many schools are still running scared of what their kids might do on the web, and still block access to useful services like YouTube and Flickr, and pretent things like Facebook and Twitter don’t exist. Seems that even after 10 years, Web 2.0 is still a scary bogieman to many schools.

I’m curious to know why, in the schools that do block access to certain sites (and it sounds like it tends to be mainly social media sites), what educational reason is given.  I’m just trying to look at the other way for a moment and instead of assuming that sites should be blocked unless a case it made to unblock them, why we never seem to do it the other way around. Is there really any reliable research to support the idea that we block first and ask questions later?  In schools that block, what are the educational arguments given for why that blocking takes place?

The usual reason is “duty of care”. The idea that we need to be doing everything we can to protect our students from every possible harm. I’m more concerned about the other kind of harm. The kind caused by overprotective shielding from the real world.

I took a Year 6 class the other day and was teaching them some “Googling skills” and ways to find information quickly online.  We had an impromptu game of Google Trivia, where I was asking them quiz-style questions and they were trying to find the answers as quickly as possible.  At one point I simply said “Look up your own name”.  To the great surprise of many of them (about half the class) they DID find themselves online – mentions of their name in sporting results, school newsletter articles, family businesses, local newspapers stories, etc.  ALL of them were surprised and NONE of them had any idea that there was information about them to be found online (ie, they didn’t put the information online themselves).

It led into a really interesting discussion (and an idea that drives the access policy we implement at my school)… it’s not a question of IF you can be found online, it’s just a question of WHAT will it say about you.  There is no question that these students will end up with a digital footprint/tattoo as they grow older, and the “body of evidence” that defines their online existence will continue to grow as they get older.   This will happen whether they consciously do it or not… Does anyone seriously believe it won’t? So there is a fairly strong compulsion (in my opinion anyway) that we need to educate children to create and manage their digital presence/persona/footprint so that it says the right kinds of things about them. Putting our head in the sand and pretending that places like Facebook with it’s 600 million inhabitants, or Twitter with over 200 million users, can simply be ignored because there might be some risk involved is a massive failure of duty of care because we are neglecting to responsibly educate our kids in the very worlds they inhabit.

Blocking access to the social networks, and pretending these things will just go away if we ignore them, is foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. I’m actually looking forward to the first class action suit against an education system for knowingly restricting students’ access to environments that are a core part of growing up in a digital world.  It’s not the “stranger danger” of the online world we need to be concerned about. It’s the culture of fear and uncertainly that we propagate by not allowing our kids to play responsibly in that world.

Image: ‘As seen on Halsted Mt

Life is Risky

Silly me. I was mowing the lawn the other day and I stupidly managed to get my big toe caught in the mower blade while it was running at full speed.  The blades ripped right through my shoe and mangled the tip of my big toe.  Needless to say, it really hurt! I was home on my own, and had to figure out what to do next… there was blood going all over the place, I felt myself going into shock, as I tried to figure out how to get myself to a doctor.  It was not a lot of fun. The good news is that despite smashing my toenail off and slicing the end of my big toe, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.  Fortunately, the bone was not broken and I still have all my toes so apart from a bit of pain and inconvenience I think I’m pretty lucky.

It highlighted to me – in a very real way – that lawnmowers are bloody dangerous things! With their sharp, rapidly rotating blades, they are obviously capable of doing some real damage to the human body. Naturally, I never intended to get my toe in the way of the blades, but it happened regardless.

So I ask the question… are lawnmowers simply too damn dangerous? Does having an accident like this mean I should get rid of the mower and never mow the lawn again? Should I be campaigning for all mowers to be banned, as I am now clearly able to prove that they are dangerous things capable of causing serious injury.  Should my local council be stepping in and confiscating the lawnmowers of my neighbours in order to ensure that nobody else can ever have a similar accident?

The answer to the these questions is obviously no. While mowing your lawn can be a potentially dangerous activity, full of inherent risks and sharp rotating blades, it’s still something that needs to be done, and is done, by people all over the world every weekend.  Of course, mower manufacturers do what they can to limit the risks; the rotor is covered by a large protective guard so the blades are not directly exposed to fingers and toes. Within reason, lawnmowers are designed to be as safe as possible, but no design is 100% failsafe.  There are still significant risks, in fact over 60,000 people are injured by lawnmowers each year in the US alone, and many of these injuries result in amputation.  With such obvious dangers posed by lawnmowers, I can only assume that people must enjoy the value of having a nice looking lawn more than they are worried about the risks of using a mower to get one.

I’m pondering these ideas and thinking how they apply to the way most schools treat potential risks for their students.  While educators have a clear duty-of-care obligation to protect our students, we also have to balance that with the need to allow them to learn and to grow and to have opportunities.  Without being given a chance to fail and to make mistakes, they are missing valuable opportunities to learn from those mistakes. I think there has to be a balance between exposing them to risks and providing them with responsibilities.

Clearly, if the risk is a physical one that could cause genuine harm, injury or even death, then we need to err on the side of caution. If a student is likely to be injured or hurt then, yes, we probably need to place greater emphasis on protecting them from risk than providing a learning opportunity.  But if the risks are minimal, statistically unlikely, or have a relatively minor negative impact, then I think we should be encouraging our students to take a few risks and benefit from the possible opportunities.  You can’t live a life where you let the potential risks override the potential opportunities; if you do you’ll miss far too many wonderful opportunities.

I got thinking about this as I read through the comments on my previous post.  That post was about treating students with enough trust and respect to assume they will make good decisions for themselves if we provide them with enough opportunities to do so, and I finished that post by asking the question “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”  A couple of commenters pointed out that bad things certainly COULD happen if we don’t protect our students, and so we should continue protecting them by filtering, blocking and limiting access to web content that might be seen as “bad”.  As usual, the discussion revolved around the “what if we get sued for letting our children see/do/experience things that aren’t ‘safe’?” line of reasoning.  While I agree we need to keep kids safe, I think that this the wrong reason for wanting to do it.  Deciding what we will or won’t do based on whether we might get sued for it is simply an awful way to go through life.

You know what? We can try to protect ourselves from risk for the rest of our lives. We can avoid doing anything remotely dangerous, just in case we get hurt.  We can wrap ourselves in cotton wool, cloistering ourselves away from anything we might find bad, distasteful, dangerous, offensive or disagreeable. We can live a life where we reduce all potential risk by avoiding all potential dangers, but in the process we miss far too many potential opportunities and I’d question whether that’s really actually living.

Many years ago I read the following poem by Kent M Keith that very much struck a chord with me.  I think it nicely captures what I’ve been trying to say in this post…

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.  Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.  Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.  Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.  Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.  Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.
  9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.  Help people anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.  Give the world the best you have anyway.

Oh, and I’d probably add number 11.  Mowers are dangerous. Mow the lawn anyway.

I think we owe it to ourselves – and our students – to create a life of true significance, where we decide to do things because they make our lives richer and more meaningful. It’s a very sad state of affairs when we start deciding what we will allow into our lives based on whether we might get hurt or offended or sued.

Yes, life is risky. Live it anyway.

Image Credit: Chris Betcher – CC BY-SA-NC