Writers and teachers have at least one thing in common: the injunction to show rather than tell. In my experience of teaching, nowhere is this advice more appropriate than in relating to information sources. Kids tend to think that if a computer says it, it must be true, ditto if it appears in a textbook. In the December 2015 edition of my newsletter, Digital Educaiton, I cited an Ofcom report which stated that:
Compared to 2014, there have been increases in the numbers of 8-11s and 12-15s who visit news websites or apps and who answer that all the information on these sites is true.
Before becoming an ICT and Computing teacher, I taught Economics. As part of the course I used a computer simulation called Running the British Economy, which I sort of changed to Ruining the British Economy. The aim of the simulation, as envisaged by its creators, was to create a situation in which the economy was running really well. Based on the Treasury economic model, it was ideal for showing in real time the effects of pursuing various macroeconomic policies.
After the students had played with the simulation a few times and became familiar with it, I asked them to see what happened when they decided to adopt two policies in turn. The first was to aim for zero inflation; the second, zero unemployment.
When they tried the first one, after a few computer years they achieved their goal -- at the cost of 98% unemployment.
Trying for the second goal, that of zero unemplyment, brought equally disastrous results: hyperinflation.
By attempting to achieve these extreme objectives, the pupils became acutely aware that the Treasury model upon which the simulation was based implicitly assumed that the Keynesian view of how economies worked was correct.
What did the pupils learn from all this?
- They saw how economic concepts like the multiplier, accelerator, tax reductions and so on worked in a very "visual" way. Seeing the trade deficit climb up two "years" after you've raised the value of your currency makes a greater impression than seeing the results of an equation on a sheet of paper.
- A wider benefit of the exercise, however, was that the pupils came to realise that the apparently objective simulation was, in fact, biased. It was ultimately based on certain assumptions, and -- here's the key thing -- those assumptions were implicit. There wasn't a warning on the pack which read "Can cause suffering to Monetarists (the opponents of Keynes' views)".
What we did, in effect, was to look under the hood, as it were. The model worked very well as a means of showing how the economy worked in practice. But by looking beyond that we were able to see that the simulation treated a hypothesis as an established fact.
We saw that computers weren't as objective as they appeared.