If schools don’t allow mistakes, where are they supposed to happen?

My first year of teaching (1999), Google had existed for a year, but it wasn’t used in most schools. Yahoo was the search engine of choice (with Ask Jeeves a close second). In the curriculum, poetry was something that I had to teach, but I wanted to change it up and focus on lyrics of Canadian musicians. I would still meet the curriculum requirements, but it would be something that would probably much more interesting to my group of students.

One of the days, I had asked students to do a Yahoo search on one of my favourite bands, “The Barenaked Ladies.”

Yup…I told kids to search that term online.

Thank goodness for the slow pace of dial-up Internet and a power switch in the computer lab that I ended up using quick to shut down every computer in the lab. There was no damage done at the time, but a wrong spelling (maybe even a correct spelling), could have led to some pretty bad results.

Adults make mistakes, as do kids.

But too often, the fear of mistakes from our students leads us to shut everything down. Schools all over the world still block access to many powerful sites, not because they are focused on what could go right, but ultimately, the smaller chance that things can go wrong. We often punish the majority of our students because the fear of what the few might do.

If you ask educators, the majority of them will tell you that relationships are crucial in education. But when we block so much from our students because of the fear of what they will do wrong, what we often say is, “I don’t trust you.” Trust is crucial to relationships, and if we don’t extend it, it is usually not returned.

A simple thing that I did as a teacher which was of great benefit, was to say, “I know there are bad things online and you might find them on purpose or by accident. Either way, let me know, and we will deal with it together. That being said, if I find out in another way, you will have broken my trust in you, and the conversation might go into a more negative direction.” That simple conversation with many of our students led to more honesty in the classroom and solved a majority of the problems.

Nothing is 100% foolproof, but students would tell me if something went wrong in both the accidental and unintentional cases. It solved a ton before it happened, but it also allowed our students to access a ton of great stuff and explore on their own.

This quote from the Atlantic is one that I think of often:

This is not to say that you shouldn’t filter anything online from children, but we must acknowledge that there is no Internet filter going to follow our students around after they leave school, which is why we need to teach skills to keep our kids safe while opening up doors for them.  Ignoring the realities of our world is a strategy, just not one that is very effective.

Source: George Couros

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