Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tell me lies, Tell me sweet little lies....

".... tell me, tell me lies", so sang Fleetwood Mac in their 1987 hit song. The song is a plea from one partner to another saying they can lie as much as they want, as long they are together it's all that matters.

In many ways we as a society seem to have grown used to this sort of philosophy. We are confronted with so many contradictions in every walk of life that it can be hard for young people (or anyone for that matter) to judge exactly who is telling the truth.

I am reminded of the 6th February 2003. Picture the scene: America and Britain are hurtling towards invading Iraq and Colyn Powell appears in front of the UN with a tiny vial of white powder. The two newspapers with the biggest readership in Britain feature the same close-up of this esteemed man and the vial. However, the headlines could not be more different. The Sun says 'Gotcha' whilst The Mirror says 'Not Enough' - two strong opinions, but poles apart. From the same information, using the same photograph, two publications came to two different conclusions. So how on earth do people know which to believe? The Mirror's point of view becomes more obvious however, when one realises that they were running a high profile 'No War' campaign.

Anyway, in ICT we do our best through the National Curriculum strategy units, to discuss the 'Reliability, validity and bias' of information. And we mostly cover this in ICT by looking at web sites.

Last week I introduced this theme to my Year 8 classes by asking them to write a report on Boilerplate, the famous Victorian robot. This Year group have to carry out a large History coursework (thanks to the ingenuity of Mrs Anne Ratcliffe, my colleague and Head of History) in the next month or so, which requires them to use a wide variety of sources for research. Now if you've looked at the site you'll probably agree that it looks very impressive. The students had to write 300 words about this little-know marvel of engineering. In canvassing the students' opinions of Boilerplate, one said 'I think its fascinating to see what was possible even in Victorian times' adding, 'if you hadn't shown us that site I'd have chosen Boilerplate for my History project.'

Small wonder that Boilerplate is little known - the site is a work of complete fiction.

When I unveiled to my students this week that this site was completely ficticious, not one of the 64 students said they had worked that out. NOT ONE! Their response was to be angry (in a good natured way) with me for lying to them (which of course I had not done - at NO POINT did I ever say the site was truthful). Ah bless students put SUCH trust in us as teachers.

Having read the reports they wrote, they are lovingly written as many students had seemed to like the idea of a Victorian robot that might have saved the world. But what I find most interesting is their lack of investigation or observation. Not one of the 64 students had looked on any website other than the one I pointed them to, in order to find out more information about Boilerplate. They had implicitly trusted the information they were presented with. This shows how important this topic is prior to their big research project for History.

Secondly the instructions I gave the students were:

a) Use Google to search for Boilerplate
b) Choose the top hit and look at the official Boilerplate website.

And what I found MOST interesting is that the second hit that Google presents the user with, contains the words 'a fictional Victorian-era robot created as a hoax. Site include a wealth of humorous "historical" photos and fictional accounts of the robot's exploits in...'. But not one of my 64 students was able to pick up on this vital nugget of information.

My students learned from this exercise because they have realised how much they trust the information they are presented with on the web and how little they do to validate or verify the information they obtain.

In fact most seem deflated to discover the content was false, prefering me to 'tell them lies, tell them sweet little lies'.

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