Fake news and FLoSR

Fake news Scrabble

There's a law which, seeing as nobody else has claimed credit for discovering it (as far as I know), I'll call Freedman's Law of School Responsibility, or FLoSR (pronounced 'flosser'). This states that in any discussion, sooner or later one of the participants will say that it, whatever 'it' is, should be taught in schools.

Teenage pregnancy? There should be more sex education in schools, despite evidence suggesting (as I always suspected to be the case) that the more sex education there is, the higher the rate of teenage pregnancy, while cuts in the budget for sex education has led to a fall in teenage pregnancies.

Obesity crisis? Schools ought to teach kids how to cook. Well, they used to, until the government of the day decided it wasn't academic enough, and scrapped Domestic Science.

Sometimes the demand for something to be taught is a thinly disguised marketing ploy. For example, some years ago an author bemoaned the fact that kids weren't being taught grammar – despite the fact that The Literacy Hour (which one child thought was called 'The Lunacy Hour' -- out of the mouths of babes etc) was a feature of most primary schools in England every day of the week. Either this all had something to do with the author's new book on grammar, or the publisher and author were remarkably ill-informed, or both.

Another article made an impassioned plea for the exploits of Genghis Khan to be taught in school, only for the short bio at the end of the article to reveal that her husband had just written a book on the subject.

It's bad enough that all these people pleading special interests think it's appropriate for schools to be unwilling participants in their marketing strategy, and that if they had their way schools would have to run 24/7 in order to cram everything in, and that they don't seem to understand that most schools don't set the curriculum, and that even if they do they still have to be accountable in terms of what they're going to judged on. What's worse is that, as we saw with the literacy hour example, and as we've seen with the pronouncements about the old ICT curriculum ("it doesn't include programming" – it did), much of the time the people concerned don't seem to have a clue about what is being taught in schools already.

Thus it is that, every time there is a new outrage on social media involving a child, someone will call for e-safety to be taught in schools. Erm, it already is, and has been for at least twenty years.

And so it was that at a conference about Fake News I attended recently, barely half an hour had elapsed before two panellist called for digital literacy to be taught in schools.

In the Q & A session I pointed out that it already was, but that the requirement is buried within the Computing Programme of Study, where it comes under the heading of 'inappropriate content'. I asked them if they thought the subject important enough to be made a separate and compulsory subject, to which three of the four panellists replied "Yes". (The fourth panellist was not asked to give an answer for some reason.)

One thing I noted was the absence of anyone from the Department for Education (DfE) among the delegates. (Why not?) So I provided the names and email addresses of a few people to whom the transcript of the conference should be sent:

Justine Greening, Education Secretary

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee

And two members of the recently-formed education technology group at the DfE.

The conference was very useful, and explored what fake news is, and what it isn't. I thought it interesting that the representative from Facebook justified the use of an algorithm to determine what people see in their feed by saying that people wanted to see updates and photos of their Uncle Bob, not millions of random photos and posts from people they've never heard of.

Fair enough, but an unintended consequence of that is that people see only news and opinions they agree with, which gives fake news a very fertile atmosphere in which to grow unchallenged.

Unfortunately, fake news has real world consequences, and sometimes potentially deadly ones at that.

Going back to the point I made about e-safety already being taught in schools, but people somehow not knowing that to be the case, I wonder if teachers and school shouldn't be more proactive when it comes to teaching such topics?

For example, maybe teachers could (yes, I know it is yet another thing that teachers could do) send out emails to parents along the lines of "We are now starting to look at how to keep safe online. Why not fill in our quiz to find out how safe you keep yourself?"

Or include a list of tips on keeping safe, post them to the school's website, and invite the local press to report on it.

Obviously, such things would need to be done with the permission of the powers-that-be in your school, and it's also extra work. On the other hand, the kind of resources I've suggested would help to reinforce your teaching, and would, hopefully, make it harder for people to feasibly suggest that e-safety isn't being addressed.

Oh, and just in case you are thinking that I believe all the onus to be on schools, I should tell you that I wrote an article for inclusion in the conference transcript that said that media and other organisations need to do two things to help schools:

First, produce free resources for schools to use.

Secondly, within the resources make explicit links to the National Curriculum – because if its relevance is not obvious, it won't be used.

This article was originally published in Digital Education, in which I also published the article just mentioned. To subscribe for free, please sign up using the form below.

Hello, World!