Some teachers actively encourage the children in their class to be independent learners and that’s a good thing. The 21st needs them.
You gotta have sole
In a Self-Organised Learning Environment (SOLE) pupils are given the freedom to learn by asking ‘big questions’ where they work collaboratively to find the answers.
This is called ‘minimally invasive education’ as children are basically left to learn for themselves, a concept made famous by Dr. Sugata Mitra and his ‘hole in the wall’ experiment.
In 1999, Mitra and his colleagues carved a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC and left it there. A hidden camera filmed children from the slum playing with the computer and it recorded them learning how to use it. Mitra went on to win the $1 million TED prize for his research.
Careful how you tread
Promoting independence, research and self-learning is an important skill but then this needs to be combined with critical thinking, information literacy, media literacy and technology literacy.
One of the biggest myths in education is that children are ‘digital natives’. They aren’t. Like many adults, children can be easily hoodwinked because they aren’t information-skilled.
Unsupervised learning and computers doesn’t seem to be a very clever mix unless you have powerful protections in place. Thankfully most schools do but that won’t stop children stumbling across information when engaged in ‘research’.
I have often seen children use the internet for research and they more often than not end up on a Wikipedia page. They frequently copy and paste from Wiki and treat everything within it as sacrosanct.
Wikipedia is a wealthy source of freely available ‘knowledge’ and ranks as one of the world’s most visited websites. It’s almost become the de facto source for knowledge but can it be trusted? Do we need to tell children to ‘hold your horses’?
Students use Wikipedia to support their research just as many teachers do but Wiki can’t be trusted because it doesn’t require an article writer or editor to have any credentialed knowledge.
The Wikipedia model is based on an open crowd-sourced structure which allows anyone to contribute. This means it is wide-open to creating bogus facts and fake news that can quite easily dupe a reader.
Wiki is full of holes and leaks and children need to know this. One way to illustrate its unreliability is to share with your class the story of Henryk Batuta.
Who is Henrky Batuta?
That’s a good question. If you looked on Wikipedia a few years ago then you’d get plenty of information about him.
You find out that he was born in Odessa in 1898 and participated in the Russian Civil War. He was also an ally of Ernest Hemingway during the Civil War in Spain. The page devoted to him said there was a street in Warsaw named Henryk Batuta Street. The article relating to him was also richly referenced and linked to 17 other articles.
Henryk Batuta never existed. The Wiki entry about him was all a hoax and the authors deliberately set out to show, in part, that web users mustn’t swallow information whole. The information relating to Henryk Batuta stayed on Wiki for 15 months without challenge.
Now imagine that children were researching him as a ‘real’ person. Their research would have be worthless. Unfortunately, some websites can make the outside world think they are authoritative and factual but they can also smell and taste a bit funny.
Wikipedia might be the “people’s encyclopedia” but it is wide open to abuse and fake ‘facts’. I’d agree with Steve Cuozzo when he says, “Believe nothing it says about anything.”
You can be 100% sure that Wiki will contain many other hoaxes and pieces of information that are monumentally dodgy. You certainly wouldn’t go there for medical information! This is a site that is “inherently unreliable”.
Our pupils need to see Wiki for what it is – the ‘Wild West’ of information. As David Barnett wrote for the Independent in 2018, “Wikipedia shouldn’t be anyone’s final stop when it comes to seeking knowledge.”
Don’t go there?
If Wikipedia is full of fake news, wide open to vandalism and the last place to find reliable information, should we tell children to avoid it like the plague?
Children should go there but be discerning, critical and forensic. This means we need to teach them what open source websites are and why they need to question everything they read rather than accept things at face value.
Some of the information will be credible and by checking the citations and references and digging deeper children can see how the information has been mined. Some of that information will be spurious and full of fool’s gold.
It might be an idea to take them to Wikipedia itself – there’s a page on there called ‘Wikipedia is not a reliable source’.
Banning the use of Wikipedia just wouldn’t make sense. We can make intelligent use of it and support children to verify sources and understand the reliability of web materials. They can see first-hand just how easy it is to present information and misrepresent it too. Not all of it is junk but some of it is.
Do go there
Looking at Wiki with critical eyes gets children to ask questions around the biases of people writing entries, what they are leaving out and which communities are not included in a conversation.
Get your students to invent their own Wiki entry for something or someone that didn’t exist and let them test it on someone else. Mix some facts with fiction and see if others can spot which is which.
Wiki can teach children about gullibility and how easy it is to fall for pictures and information hook, line and sinker.
A healthy level of distrust makes children critical learners. At least if they are asked to research a historical figure or event, they can question whether a particular person or incident actually existed or happened. If they did, how much can they really trust?