“He makes you look like an ass, is what he does, Ed.”

Today is the 30th anniversary of one of my all-time favourite movies. As a somewhat artful student myself in the 80s, the appeal of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was its portrayal of a teenagers’ ability to outwit, with panache, a principal hell-bent on collaring wrongdoers.

Ed Rooney: What is so dangerous about a character like Ferris Bueller is he gives good kids bad ideas. Last thing I need at this point in my career is 1,500 Ferris Bueller disciples running around these halls. He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body.
School Secretary: He makes you look like an ass, is what he does, Ed.
Ed Rooney: Thank you, Grace, but I think you’re wrong.

It turns out that the school secretary wasn’t wrong – Ferris Bueller does make Ed look like an ass. By the end of the movie, a defeated Principal Rooney, covered in dirt, missing a shoe, and with torn clothes, boards a school bus, under the humiliating gaze of its passengers.

In many ways that is how schools look when they go down the path of trying to prevent students doing the wrong thing (by censoring the internet) instead of working with students, educating them and helping them to understand why it’s to their benefit to do the right thing. Blocking is a fool’s errand. We need to win students’ loyalty and cooperation, not corral them into compliance.

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Keeping Students Safe in a River of Content

How can we protect our students from certain kinds of information and content on the internet?  It used to be so easy to do. Ten years ago, most students’ only internet access was at school. Teachers really had complete control over what information students were exposed to, and importantly to this discussion, what information they were not exposed to.  If information were water, it was a trickling brook and it was not hard to build a weir, or divert water so that it missed our students, keeping them safe.

But carrying the same analogy forward, now, if information were water it would be a river.  Its impossible to divert water to avoid it reaching our students.  If we as teachers stand in the river, trying to divert the water to protect our students, it will just swirl around us as though we weren’t even there.  Instead we need to work with our students, and help them to safely negotiate the river of information that they are in.  “Put your foot on that rock there, be careful! there’s a deep spot there, look out for that eddy!”.

Now I am not arguing that we should stop filtering content altogether.  There are some things that we must do to try to protect students from inadvertently stumbling upon unsavory material.  But (and here is the crux of my argument) if students are going to deliberately SEEK unsavory material, the fact is, we can no longer stop them even if we try to. They have internet at home, the tech-savvy ones can often get around our filters at school, they have mobile phones with internet access.  The only way to stop students finding unsavory material is to influence them so they no longer want to deliberately SEEK it out.

At the moment, our failing attempts to protect the few ill-meaning students who deliberately seek out offensive content, are successfully frustrating the educational experience of the well-meaning majority of students.

HOW we change the attitudes of those ill-meaning students, is another (and more challenging) topic.  But in an information-rich world, the role of a teacher can no longer be “information-controller”, it must increasingly be “shaper-of-attitudes”.

Schools used to be able to choose between shaping the choices of students (“difficult”) and just blocking the content (“easy”).  I don’t think we have that choice any more, as blocking content is no longer “easy” but “nearly impossible”.