After lunch on a warm July day in South West England, my Year 9 history lesson is underway in one of the school's IT suites. My goal is for pupils to summarise arguments about who is responsible for the death of JFK. After five minutes and the usual batting away of requests to play music, pupils begin their web research. Armed with a guidance sheet and several weeks of classroom work on the topic, I feel confident that they can complete the task asked of them.
Yet when I stand at the front of the room to get a good view of the class, I notice a bank of computers displaying the same web page. On closer inspection, and to my horror, pupils had typed the whole of the question into WikiAnswers. Furthermore, looking around at other computers, I see the same question typed into Google with bemused pupils asking me: "Which one has the answer, Sir?" I am left wondering why so many pupils seem unable to sort through and analyse information.
On reflection, I am fully aware this is not a new phenomenon but one that should be tackled. With my next Year 9 group, I decided to use a different tactic. I used the school's virtual learning environment to upload a Word document that could be accessed by all pupils during the lesson. On top of the usual instructions, I placed a list of websites for pupils to use. I realised that giving them access to the whole of the internet and its millions of pages was unfair. Even in key stage 4 and 5 exams, they are given a number of pre-selected sources with which to make a judgment. Providing a list of websites allows you to check them in advance, differentiate by giving specific clues or even test the bright pupils with more tricky questions about reliabilityutility of the sources.
And the long term? One way to tackle the issue is equipping pupils early on with the skills to spot the dangers of believing everything they read and to try to nurture the ability to compare sources and be critical. I want them to develop what Ernest Hemingway claimed every man should possess, their "built-in automatic crap detector". A short course at the beginning of Year 7, perhaps run with the IT department, could teach pupils the skills and show them the pitfalls of the internet. Giving them a link to Wikipedia where a definition is either too short or inaccurate could be one way of encouraging pupils to discuss the issues.
These methods and ideas are not intended to be revolutionary. I want them to ignite the debate about how the internet can be best used in history. After all, once the pupils were back into the classroom and careful questioning applied, they lost their impatience for answers and remembered the key arguments of the topic.
Dan Hartley is head of history and religious studies at a Devon comprehensive
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