British schools spend thousands of pounds every year protecting students from the horrors of the Internet. A multi-million pound industry has been built up to protect our children from accessing pornography and other inappropriate content online, but how much of this is really necessary, and could our need to control student Internet access stem from the way we teach rather than concerns about safety? I recently visited Copenhagen, where they have a strikingly different attitude towards student risk.
The Danish openly allow students to take personal risks which influences every aspect of school life and would scare the clipboard off any UK health and safety inspector. One school I visited had no fences to separate playing children from the “real world”, and when a ball was kicked into the road students spilled out into the street to collect it, chatting to passing pedestrians as they went. As we watched, across the driveway, two students locked a third inside a skip, and on the other side of the playground a young girl bounced happily in a basketball hoop six feet in the air while a teacher walked nonchalantly below.
The Danish schools expect their children to make mistakes and deal with the consequences
It’s not that the Danish don’t care for their children, they simply expect the young to make mistakes, and to deal with the consequences. In Copenhagen’s schools there are no swipe cards, no door entry systems, and rarely any locked gates. The idea that someone would enter the school and attempt to harm a child just isn’t part of their inherited culture, despite Anders Breivik’s comparatively recent actions just a few hundred miles away in Norway. In one particular school my group made our way to the staff room and helped ourselves to coffee before anyone even questioned our presence.
This attitude of personal responsibility and risk acceptance flows through all aspects of the Danish education system, including technology. In Denmark schools are not legally required to filter or monitor student access to the Internet, and most schools do not implement it. Instead students are educated about taking personal responsibility for their actions and how to deal with uncomfortable situations.
Where I work we allow our sixth form students to use Google Hangouts on their Chromebooks. If you’re not familiar with it, Hangouts is Google’s instant messaging and video chat web app. Early on we dealt with a few difficult disiplinary situations that this caused, but we were keen not to let this “boundary pushing” influence long term policy decisions and we started to see some interesting and unexpected results from students.
One student asked to have their access to Hangouts removed because they didn’t trust themselves not to get distracted by it. Another spoke to me because they were concerned about something that had been sent to them and didn’t want it to affect general access to what he considered a valuable tool. This type of personal responsibility and self-awareness is exactly the type of positive behaviour we should be encouraging. By allowing students responsibility for their own actions we find they’re extremely capable of managing themselves.
One of the Copenhagen school administrators explained that it was like riding a bike. A student can learn to ride a bike in the safety of their back garden, but the real world requires that they ride on the road.
In the UK we’re driven to distraction by child abuse cases and violent crime despite both being at record low levels. Yes, things like cyber-bullying are genuine concerns, but attempting to restrict access to the technologies that facilitate it only has a negative effect on those using the technology for good and drives the problem underground.
For many schools this protectionism is an excuse for the way we teach in the UK. The Danish education system is liberal and open. There is no curriculum to speak of, no exam results, and teachers are trusted to educate students in the way they see best. This system gives Danish teachers room to breath, and students the freedom to make mistakes. In the UK we spoon feed our students facts and on a lesson-by-lesson basis monitor their progress. This rigid system of teaching gives no room for manoeuvre. Ten minutes spent off task can affect the outcome of the student, teacher, and ultimately the entire school. Rather than manage this as a classroom disciplinary issue we use technology to block website content, take control of student computers, and block web apps.
I can honestly only think of a handful of times I’ve had to trawl through a student’s web history or discipline a student for attempting to access inappropriate content. We should ask ourselves whether the resources being put into protecting our children online are directed in the most effective way to allow them to learn and explore the real world. Kids will be kids, unless we allow them to be adults.
How do you manage web filtering at your school and what has been the effect in the classroom? Let me know in the comments.