by Laura Kerslake
This blog post reports on the Inquiring Science project, and how our initial findings indicate that oracy has a key role to play in developing children’s internet literacy. The project is run by Laura Kerslake and Rupert Wegerif for the Oracy Centre at Hughes Hall
I was in the first year of secondary school history when my teacher, Mr Foster, told the whole class about an island in the Pacific where a race of enormous, green-skinned humans had lived. Their skin tone was due to their seaweed diet, their eight-feet-tall size due to how much time they spent swimming in the water. He told us all about how historians know of their existence, adding in details about theories of their demise as a race. We all sat there open-mouthed, fascinated by this amazing piece of information that none of us had ever come across before. Then he stopped. He said that he had been making the whole thing up. There had never been green-skinned giant people living on a Pacific island.
We had all, unquestioningly, believed what he was saying. And that was exactly his point. We had absorbed everything he said because he was a teacher, even though it was unbelievable. But perhaps it wasn’t unbelievable to us: what did we know, a bunch of 11-year-olds who had happily been believing what they were told for years from people who knew far more than we did.
Mr Foster wanted us to question what we were told. To look at a piece of evidence or information and ask what it meant, if it was trying to fool us, what we could do to check it. If, to use Collins’ Word of the Year for 2017, it was ‘fake news’. It was a lesson which was precognisant of the Internet age, in which we have an abundance of information – but no clear idea of how to sort through it all. This is especially the case when there are claims of deliberate disinformation being shared on the internet in increasingly high-tech ways, such as so-called ‘deep-fakes’: videos or photographs that have been manipulated in sophisticated ways to misrepresent people and their actions.
Yet seeking information online remains commonplace; according to the Council of Europe Internet Literacy Handbook (2017), the second most popular online activity is getting information (50%), behind socialising (82%). The influence of the internet has, in recent years, been the focus of much commentary. For example, in the 2016 campaigns for Trump’s election in the US, and the Brexit referendum in the UK, it has been claimed that the influence of fake news played a significant role in the outcomes. [i] In Spain, fake news was brought to the fore over its influence in the Catalonian independence vote and the resulting unrest. It is no surprise, then, that governments across the world are keen to find ways of limiting the spread and influence of online disinformation.
Whereas some countries have attempted to pass legislation to combat fake news, for example the UK, France and Germany, Finland has taken a classroom-based approach. Journalists visit schools to discuss journalistic practices and social responsibilities with students. Journalists encourage young people to consider how and why information is put together, in sessions which engage them in open discussion about fake news and online disinformation. There is evidence that this approach is working: by the measures of the Media Literacy Index, Finland has the highest media literacy in Europe.
Our project, Inquiring Science, is investigating if teaching the philosophy of science in primary schools can develop the kind of skills that children need to be able to become more internet literate, including being able to identify fake news. The rationale for the project was to develop a set of classroom resources to teach the philosophy of science in primary schools. A starting point for this was Tim Lewens’ book, The Meaning of Science (Tim is co-investigator on the project), which highlights that identifying what is and is not scientific requires a consideration of the philosophy of science in order that ‘scientific’ is not merely a term used for ‘the kind of thinking that is done during science lessons’ as its only criteria.
Tim’s book highlights that scientific thinking is a community effort, as C.S. Peirce originally conceived of the Community of Inquiry as a scientific one in which the advancement of understanding took place not in the mind of one person but as an inquiry, in which knowledge is doubted, questioned and reformulated in the minds of many.
We designed the resources so that the issues raised in the Inquiring Science sessions could be discussed in a classroom Community of Inquiry. After reviewing the science education literature and collaborating with teachers and science coordinators, we devised ten sessions which addressed the areas identified. Each one started with a stimulus story, all set in Galileo Class in Newton Primary. Here are two summaries of the content of the stories:
Wonky Sheep: Ama’s sister tells her that sheep who live in hilly areas grow longer legs on one side of their bodies so that they don’t fall over. Ama believes her, but then feels silly when she finds out it isn’t true. Her classmates decide to help her come up with good questions to find out if her sister’s tales are true or not.
Flat Earth: Karl comes to school telling his friends he has found evidence online that the earth is flat. Others in the class don’t believe him. Galileo class and their teacher have a discussion about what good evidence looks like and what to do to check if you’re not sure about something you read online.
Each story is used as a stimulus for class discussion, as well as small-group discussion or activities. Overall, the sessions cover issues such as: considering what evidence is, understanding that there are different sources of evidence and how to evaluate these, deciding which questions to ask to discover more, writing factual rather than biased reports, understanding motives, considering the meanings of concepts such as truth and proof, the relationship between information and authority. While these connect to the philosophy of science, they also accord with issues of internet literacy.
The resources are currently being trialled with twelve Year 3 classes (children aged six and seven) and five Year 5 classes (children aged nine and ten). We have also devised tests of internet literacy, pre- and post-intervention. Children were asked to complete two tests before the intervention started: one individual test and one in groups of three. The group tests were video recorded so that we could analyse children’s responses when they discussed the questions with their peers. The two tests contained comparable questions, drawn from the issues that had been identified with the spread of fake news and ways in which these issues can be addressed. For example, one question asked children to choose a headline which gave the best information about the opening of a new toy shop. Two were deliberately sensational (one positive, one negative) but didn’t give much information. The other was more measured, but provided more information about the opening of the new shop. Other questions asked children to identify which parts of a text were fact and which were opinion, or to identify bias in a story.
One question asked children to imagine that they had a read a piece of information (for example ‘Chocolate is good for you’), but they weren’t sure if it was true. They were asked to rate, between 1 and 10, what they thought about other sources of information to which they could turn to find out more: a friend, a parent, the internet, a teacher, or a book. Our findings from these pre-intervention tests have raised some interesting points about children’s perception of sources of information.
The scores in the individual tests indicated that children place parents and the internet on a par with one another – the average score was 6.4 for the internet and 6.5 for parents. The comparable question in the group tests indicated some of the children’s thoughts: parents were given high scores because “your mum and dad know most things” and “they know more than us”. By comparison, the internet “lies about most things” according to one child. Another child in her group commented that “the internet isn’t always right”, with the third group member adding “I’m not even allowed it”. By contrast, books rated highly in the children’s estimation, most often being given the highest rating of all of the sources of information.
Another question gave a short passage in which the Harry Potter books were described as boring. The question asked children to identify what the passage was trying to make them think. What was interesting about the responses to this question was that is depended on what children thought about the Harry Potter books. Those who didn’t like them (“I’ve never read them”; “they are boring”; “I don’t like boy stuff(!)”) were more likely to correctly identify that the passage was trying to make them think that the Harry Potter books are boring. Those who were enthusiastic about them, however had much more trouble. One child vehemently said “No!” when asked to circle that answer by another in her group, before grudgingly circling the correct answer. Another child completely refused to circle the answer that they were boring because she liked the books so much, commenting “I know it’s the right answer, but I’m not circling it”.
These indications are not new information. The claim has been made repeatedly that the internet is an echo chamber in which we see what we want to see, that which corresponds to our existing beliefs. There is an interesting online quiz hosted by the US Pew Research Centre. Respondents are asked if certain statements (about immigrants, healthcare, the role of government) are fact or opinion. What’s interesting is that at the end, a breakdown is given about how respondents answered according to their political views. It indicates that what people mean by ‘true’ is ‘true for me’.
When we conduct post-tests later this year, we will discover whether the Inquiring Science sessions have had an impact on how children answer the test questions. What seems clear, however, is that, just as oracy has a vital role to play in successful learning across the curriculum, so too should it form a central role in internet literacy. What was called propaganda within the field of history has now proliferated in quantity and technological sophistication to become the global and interdisciplinary issue of fake news. We all need a Mr Foster – we all need to be our own Mr Fosters – and to do that we need, right from the earliest years of education, to encourage children to engage in dialogue with each other. By questioning, fact-checking and discussing contrasting viewpoints, oracy in the subject of internet literacy can empower children to make use of the internet and all of its potential, rather than it being relegated to an angry echo-chamber distrusted by children and their parents. As the 20th century designer Charles Eames wrote: “eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” The internet provides the quantity of those connections. Oracy is the key to their quality.
[i] For example, see Rupert Wegerif’s article: https://www.oneducation.net/no-01-march-2018/new-technology-apparent-failure-democracy-educational-response/