Libraries and homework in the internet age

My 12 year old daughter in Year 7 (first year at secondary school in the UK) was given some history homework.  She was asked to create a fictional Facebook profile for Martin Luther.  Not Martin Luther King, the human rights activist.  Martin Luther, the great religious reformer.  The school has an online homework management system which the children login to collect their homework instructions or any updates.  Apparently the teacher had said the template for the Facebook page would be on the system but when my daughter logged in she could not find it.  It is not the first time a teacher at the school has asked her to create a fictional Facebook profile for a character (the previous occasion was for English).  On that occasion I showed her my Facebook profile so she could see what sort of information was included and she drew out a profile on paper using pen and pencil.  She does not have a Facebook profile of her own yet.

My approach on this occasion was to take my daughter to our local library to research Martin Luther.  Yes, I know, the vast majority of children of her age these days would go straight to the internet (probably using Google), do a search for ‘Martin Luther’, find an overwhelming amount of information on a variety of different websites, some of which would be confusing or wrong, would pull out some ‘facts’, create a profile (copying their own profile layout even though officially they should not have Facebook until they are 13 according to Facebook rules) and job would be done.  But what would they learn from this?  Anything about Martin Luther and his time apart from basic facts?  Anything about the provenance of the sources of information (an important concept in history research)?  Anything about how to reference material properly?  Anything about how not to plagiarize someone else’s work?  What about how to search to get the right sort of information needed quickly and effectively? I do not know the purpose of this piece of homework because the information about it is not on the online homework system and she didn’t write anything down in class.  On the face of it this piece of homework panders to the notion of making the topic ‘relevant or fun for modern children’ by using the concept of a powerful online social tool they probably know about (and might be using even if under age).  Maybe I’m being needlessly old fashioned about using a popular social media tool as a route into understanding historical characters.  I will explain my reservations.

Online research to create something like a Facebook profile of a historical character (showing a couple of status updates) risks encouraging surface learning rather than delving into what caused certain events to happen or a character to behave in a certain way, unless it is followed up with other useful activities which explore the topic in more depth in subsequent lessons.  Most children faced with this assignment would recoil at the sight of Wikipedia which can be densely technical though probably mostly accurate (depending on the subject and who had contributed to it online), they would also find other sites with the essential information about Martin Luther (including his 95 theses posted on the Cathedral door in 1517, his education, place of birth, jobs and quotes).  They might even find something about him which makes them pause and think was he really a reformer when some of his views seem to jar with modern sensibilities (for example the place of women in society).  Some children of this age encountering such a vast array of information about him would be able to assimilate this into a Facebook profile which gets to the heart of the character (and would be interesting for a teacher to mark).  Some children, like my daughter, would ask a parent for advice or help first, with varying degrees of success (some parents may know little about the topic or not know where to start).  Other children would do it as a fast as possible without much investigation.  Or they might ignore the homework completely.  Many children will not have access to the internet at home or will have to share a family computer with siblings, some will have no books at home at all or may not have easy access to a library where they can look in books or search the internet on library computers.  Homework at the best of times can be problematic for some children and making most homework rely upon the internet access increases the amount of time children spend in front of a screen and could make them regard books as antiquated sources of information not worthy of their attention.  This means they miss out on the richness of learning how to interrogate paper based information, a useful skill even in the internet age.

By its very nature creating a Facebook profile as a tool for gathering information about a person and understanding their motivations is not going to encourage a child to reference their sources.  There is no place for this on Facebook so why would this even be a passing thought for a child unless the teacher specifically asks them to provide a list of sources they used as part of the activity.  For historical and scientific research purposes knowing how to record a reference is a useful skill especially if you are going to write about and publish your research.  I was taught this skill at primary school in dedicated library lessons.  Our school (in white apartheid South Africa) was fortunate enough to have an excellent library full of books.  We had good teachers.  We were taught the Dewey decimal system, how to search a catalogue and how to do research to write a paragraph or an essay pulling information from at least 3 difference sources.  We were taught how to write a list of references using the Harvard style and how to use the index of a book to find information fast within that book.  We were also taught how to precis a paragraph to make it shorter yet still containing the essential information without changing the meaning, a useful editing skill. In addition we practiced rewriting a paragraph from a book so it contained the original facts or meanings but without directly copying it word for word, we could only quote short extracts not whole paragraphs unless we referenced the source and explained what we thought about it, to show that we had learned something when thinking about and investigating the subject.

In secondary school we honed these skills further as our writing became more sophisticated, it was not easy and the most annoying part was writing everything out by hand and having to rewrite it when we wanted to change the order of sentences or paragraphs.  However writing by hand did help to embed information in our minds and seemed to help some of us organise our thoughts – planning an essay became essential to save rewriting too many times.  So we learned how to gather all the information first, highlight the links between them and discover a narrative.  We learned how to weigh up conflicting evidence about something and make a decision about what to include in a report, essay or project.  We discovered new concepts and ideas. This learning was mediated and enhanced by our teachers who taught us to question, debate and discuss what we researched, they often provided curated resources or a set of instructions and a series of questions we needed to answer to get us started.

Learning this way took time, partly in class, partly at home, in school or a public library.  We also had subject textbooks which we were usually able to take home from school if there were sufficient copies,  this made it possible for parents to see what their children would be learning about that term.  It did mean that it was easy to refer only to the textbook for source material but on many occasions our teachers would encourage us to find other sources to interrogate the ‘facts’ in the textbooks to give us a broader view.  For history in particular this encouragement to question might be one of the many reasons the apartheid regime eventually fell apart as more and more of us in ‘white’ privileged schools questioned the validity and morality of giving us a good education while our black peers in segregated schools were given a separate much narrower syllabus with limited learning resources and were protesting for equality (the 1976 Soweto uprising being the most well known event).  For example my practice examination essay on the African National Congress in preparation for my Matric was a personal turning point because my history teacher gave it an outstanding mark and asked me to “please not write like that in the examination” as the school would be investigated for teaching us to question the official apartheid government story about the ANC (he said it with some pride – he was clearly pleased with me).  It was a sobering realization of the stark divisions in that country where equal opportunities for a good education did not exist because of a terrible ideology.

Homework for the twenty first century child is just as much of a bugbear as it was in previous centuries though some of the tools and resources are different.  My daughter has a laptop, she can type out her homework, though she also hand writes or draws homework, depending on what is set.  She could potentially copy and paste anything from the internet and pass it off as her own unless her teacher runs anti plagiarism software to check the source of her work (if electronic) or we her parents check when she finishes her homework.  She can skim topics to find facts using online search tools and find/highlight tools on the browser.  She can find photos and other images to easily paste into her homework (she has never been told to paste in the source URL or copyright information, she knows nothing about Intellectual Property rights or licences such as Creative Commons which allow copying with attribution, except what I have started to explain).   So the laptop and the internet provides her with powerful tools to get her homework done quickly but she is often overwhelmed by too many choices, dense unmediated information and sometimes a hazy recollection of exactly what the teacher explained of how to go about finding what she needs to complete the homework properly – not paying attention in class is common to all generations!

So we went to the library.  We asked a professional* librarian, who used a computer to search the catalogue (not the card index catalogue of my childhood libraries) but only came up with books about Martin Luther King.  However the librarians were very helpful, they were able to point us to several books (in the children’s section of the library) which contained the essential information plus explanations.  One book, Volume 11 of the Children’s Britannica, had a section (and an image) on Martin Luther explained in clear language understandable to children.  The librarian very helpfully gave my daughter a pencil and paper to copy out essential facts, however we did end up photocopying the pages (20 pence a copy) to bring home when she had done some writing and had become fed up with the paper sliding about on the table (we should have brought her laptop or a pad of paper).  I showed her how to use an index in the other books to find out if Martin Luther was included and whether the information was sufficient to make it worth taking a book out of the library to use at home.  While she was writing some facts from the encyclopedia (which could not be borrowed) I followed up some of the sources in one of the books and talked them through with her when she stopped writing.  One piece of information helped with questioning the extent of the ‘reformer’ reputation and I could see her considering this carefully.  It was a pleasure to bounce ideas off each other and to see the spark of comprehension in her face as we discussed what she was discovering in the books.

Yes, we could have used these investigation techniques on the internet.  However, with a local library (saved once by a huge public campaign in the face of drastic public funding cuts while many others are being closed) containing real books, the opportunity to teach her how to do paper-based research and the chance to get away from a screen, it was good to help her with this piece of homework using a more traditional method.

Maybe we will use the internet to find out if there are any good documentaries about Martin Luther she could watch.  But maybe this is something they will do at school – I don’t know how long the class will be spending on this topic, so we don’t know how much she needs to research.

She could probably compile a short essay on the information she gathers about Martin Luther in addition to the set homework of creating a fictional Facebook profile for a man whose only social media tool was a large notice posted on the door of a Cathedral (a very busy public place in his time). Maybe that is what the teacher will say about this activity in class when they hand their in homework for marking.  I hope she does learn more on this topic in school than the basic information she gathered today for a Facebook profile creation activity and this was just the start of a good exploration of a fascinating period of history.  I also hope she is taught some good research techniques at school though I will do my best to pass on the research skills and knowledge I have not forgotten because it was taught well all those years ago.

*I have been told the librarians on duty may have been Library Assistants

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