Teach ethics not fear

Yoda-Fear-is-the-path-to-the-dark-sideRob McTaggart is a local teacher arguing that we should move beyond the fear-based cybersafety agenda towards a conversation about digital empowerment and supporting our students’ growth in an online world. He’s entirely correct.

McTaggart argues that we currently rely on fear in teaching cybersafety and this simply doesn’t work:

Lessons in fear are quickly forgotten. The students that feel threatened shift into survival mode and the learning stops. Those that do not, either think they know better or have learnt little more than a plan for abstinence from the internet. Principals, teachers and police are seeing more issues happening online than ever before, and the numbers tell us that what we are doing is not working.

Teaching kids to fear the Internet or just blocking access, does nothing to educate them in how they should act as responsible citizens. This is exactly why I argue that teaching kids ethics is so important. We have to accept that they are going to be swimming in a strange, sometimes tempting, sometimes dangerous environment and give them the tools to make sensible assessments of how to act.

The essence of ethics is not about teaching kids absolutes of what is right or wrong, but about giving them the tools so that in any given situation they can reach that conclusion for themselves. For example, one of the classic ethical conundrums is would you push someone in front of a train if by doing so you prevented the train from crashing and so saved hundreds of lives. There’s no right answer to that, but a discussion of the idea and its implications can see each individual reaching a position they are comfortable with.

Rob McTaggart and I part company when he talks about digital tattoos and the importance of teaching kids that their early actions will leave an indelible stain that they may later regret. While this is true, it’s just another facet of teaching through fear-based-rules. And you only have to look at the number of young adults with real tattoos or who still smoke to understand how completely unmotivated kids are by a fear of distant consequences.

McTaggart goes on to talk about moving kids through stages of demonstrating responsibility.

…let us create a continuum and set of standards for our students to learn digital citizenship from, including a set of scaffolds, and norms for when to apply and remove them. Questions will arise such as when is a child old enough to use open social networks? When should we allow students to search for images on Google? For what ages should we unblock YouTube? When is a student old enough to expect them to attribute the author of a Creative Commons work?

In the short-term I agree with him completely, there are explicit stages we can try to move kids through that make it easy to teach responsibility. But in the medium- to long-term I don’t believe any explicit set of rules or teachings can keep pace with the changes in technology. The age at which it is seen as acceptable for kids to be using social media is shifting by the moment. The types of media the kids have access to, and the implications of each new development, are moving with timescales measured in months not years.  And so teaching any explicit set of rules, or moving the kids through explicit stages of licensing is doomed to failure.

We must move to teaching students how to behave ethically in all circumstances. it doesn’t matter whether that means in the context of shopping at Woolworths, experimenting on cockroaches, or using a smart watch to cheat in exams. We need to give students the tools to hopefully make the right decisions, or to recognise that they are making the wrong decisions and accept the consequences of their actions. Because let’s face it, like that stupid tattoo, just telling a teenager not to do something is neither going to stop them nor teach them anything. We have to teach them enough so that they can make the right decisions even when they are in uncharted territory which our rules and tales of danger have not yet contemplated.

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