I think that the most important thing which young people should be taught is to know how they can decide if what they are being told is true
– Harry Kroto (Nobel prize for Chemistry 1996)
This is the story of the theory of practical joking and its application to Facebook and education. There are two essential features of practical joking which contribute to its success in any particular situation. Firstly, you must create for the victim a plausible worldview into which the circumstances of the joke fit naturally. Secondly, you must ensure that the victim has no independent means of checking the veracity of the joke situation.
Here is an example. For a week prior to the actual joke, you ring up the victim each day and, instead of speaking simply make clicking sounds (or for more sophistication, you play a number of recoded tones from your mobile phone). The day before the joke, you do this twice. On the day of the joke, you ring up and say, 'This is Open Reach calling. We maintain all the phone lines and have been receiving a number of complaints about mysterious calls with just odd noises. Have you been bothered in this way? Ahh you have. We believe the fault is that there is a leakage to earth. We can very quickly check this if you get a metal pan or dish and fill it two thirds full of water. It must be a metal... Yes I can hold the line until you get the pan… Place the pan with water on the floor. Now just very slowly lower the phone into the water until I tell you to stop'.
Away from these domestic examples, the theory also works more generally. During the Second World War, the Allies were undertaking bombing raids on Germany. But the Germans developed long wavelength radar and were thus able to detect the bombers and send up fighters to intercept. In response, the Allies sent over decoy planes dropping aluminium strips which then appeared on German radar as moving objects in the sky. Just like a practical joke, the radar operators are expecting planes and have only one way of getting the information.
When the Germans developed shorter wavelength radar, they were able to differentiate the aluminium strips from planes. So the Allies then used a single plane towing a number of gliders. Again, a few of these planes could create the impression of a large flight of bombers and decoy the enemy fighters away. However, when a few of these gliders were lost over enemy territory, the Germans realised what was happening and then sent up reconnaissance planes to get a visual sighting. The Germans now had an alternative way of checking reality.
The practical joke lesson from this? Given a particular worldview, if you only rely on one way of interrogating reality, you are likely to be deceived. If you have many independent ways of probing reality, the only thing which will look like the real thing is
the real thing.
It is often reported that President Calvin Coolidge claimed, 'the business of America is business' (he didn't say this – but that's why we need another way of checking what he actually said). In much the same way, the business of Facebook is addiction and data. Once you are subscribed to the Facebook platform, your every click is monitored, your preferences so revealed are sold to advertisers and to political campaigns (often masterminded by pretty dodgy people). Background algorithms target similar items to you in an effort to keep you engaged for longer. What started as a good idea to connect friends has turned into a monster of global reach.
Why does this matter? More and more, young people are turning only to Facebook (and other social media) for their news about the world. The Facebook algorithms ensure that you only get views which correspond to your own. We see the gradual demise of newspapers and the fixed time television news. Indeed, most quality journalism is now behind paywalls (because someone has to pay for good journalism) leaving the field to partisan titles of doubtful authenticity. For these reasons, it is important that any educational system for young people of secondary age has to develop criticality – the disposition to challenge, to question the 'facts', and to look for a position which has been checked by as many independent means as possible.
One day, while I was the headteacher of Northfield Academy in Aberdeen, the truancy officer brought in a boy who had evaded capture for several months, a feat of some ingenuity in itself. I gently tried to find out why he didn't come to school. The answer was simple, 'school is boring'. 'But what do you do with your time?' was my next line of attack. 'I do watch quite a bit of daytime telly,' he said, and seeing the reaction on my face, he quickly went on, 'but I don't watch any rubbish. There's interesting stuff from the National Geographic and yesterday there was a programme about place names. Did you know that we can find out how far the Vikings came inland from the names of towns?' I concealed the fact that I didn't know and (out of duty?) went on to urge that he come back to school. He agreed to meet me at the main door at 9am the next day.
We didn't see him in school again, but at chance meeting in town some years later he recognised me and we spoke about his visit to my office. In the course of the conversation, he said: 'Thing is, I wanted to learn about the things I was interested in. That's what's happens with my job, I go on a course for the next thing I need to know'. He is now in charge of drone operations for an engineering company in the oil business.
Like the victims of a practical joke, we inhabit a worldview of secondary schooling which we rarely, if ever, challenge. This worldview is: we know that young people must come to secondary school because that's where we educate them for their adult life. And let's forget the claim that 'educate' comes from the Latin 'to lead out'. It doesn't. It comes from the Latin word for 'rearing or training'. We know what's best for them and that's why we process them through a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We know that learning proceeds in a linear way from the simple to the complicated and that's why we must take each class through the same routines at the same time each week. We know that wearing a uniform will make students respect authority and understand what a high value we place on compliance.
Sir Ken Robinson characterised this worldview for schooling as based on an industrial model of a factory, with inputs, then production lines, followed by outputs of varying quality. Our quality control consisting of examination results. We know that the world would descend into chaos without the Scottish Qualifications Authority to maintain 'standards'.
I am a product of the secondary school system. In those days, I was compliant. It was only when I had the opportunity for postgraduate research that I fully understood the difference between what I wanted to know because I was interested in it and what I had been doing up till then, which was knowing what someone else thought I ought to know. I had rediscovered curiosity, which the system had put aside to facilitate my compliance. I also discovered 'just in time' learning – the techniques I needed for the next stage of the research. The truant at Northfield got there before me.
So do we really know the things I have listed which characterise the present system? How can we know 'what is best' for students when they become adults in a rapidly changing world? Thinking about our own learning – does it proceed in an orderly, linear fashion? Would we be happy to be told there is only one approved way for us to live our lives?
From a social perspective, it's clear that a major function of secondary schools is to act as childminder while the parents are at work. But if, for that reason, we are going to insist on compulsory attendance, the least we can do is to make schools as diverse and as happy places as possible with an emphasis, not on individual marks, but on social interaction and cooperative working.
The 'real thing' we should be attempting to discover by as many means as possible is not curriculum content but the nature of learning itself. Why are young people so attracted to learning in the context of online games? Understanding this might be one way (among many others we should consider) of establishing whether we are actually dealing with real learning or something which, as the strips of aluminium look like aircraft, only looks like learning in the context of the current worldview of compulsory secondary schooling.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University