Why telling the truth is better for learning

28th August 2014

A little while ago the Daily Mail published a story entitled: Teacher apologises to parents after ‘alien egg’ project leaves children ‘in tears and too scared to go to school’

The by-line ran:

  • Problem solving project centred on a 3ft-high egg found in school grounds
  • Children were told the egg was safe, and asked to help investigate the ‘amazing discovery’
  • Many parents said their children were enjoying the project
    But some complained younger pupils were in tears or having nightmares
  • Headteacher Jon Smith later apologised if children were ‘worried’ by stunt

At the end of the story, the Mail quoted Mr Smith’s letter to parents:

“We assure you that this afternoon we held an extra whole school assembly where we made it absolutely clear to everyone that the egg was of no danger to anyone, that it was safe to keep in school, and that we would therefore be able to observe it further tomorrow.

‘We apologise if that message did not come through sufficiently and, as planned, in the follow-up assembly in the morning we will place further emphasis on it being of absolutely no danger whatsoever.

‘During the course of today the children have produced an enormous amount of high quality work, in a variety of forms, related to the egg and it was great to see them so engaged. Such “discoveries” are quite common in primary schools across the country and are a very successful way of promoting problem solving, teamwork, group discussion and PSHE-related topics. This activity is part of our “No Problem” theme this term.’

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It is always difficult to judge a news story from the outside and the paper’s agenda often takes precedents over balance. Yet something clearly went wrong here, and a project which meant well left some children scared and confused. It with this in mind that I would like to come back to this story and explore some of the moral and pedagogical issues it throws up.

1. Was it unethical for the teachers to deceive their students about the egg? (Link to blog)

If you are someone who thinks lying to children is always unethical and the teachers were lying to their students when they pretended the egg was real, then the project was flawed from the beginning and should never have gone ahead.

‘Always’, however, is a bold claim and there are always exceptions to this rule.

For this reason we should revise it. Either to:
– ‘Lying to children is unethical, most of the time’.
Or (better still):
– ‘We should tell children the truth as often as possible, unless we have an excellent reason not to.

So, did the teachers involved in the dinosaur project lie to their students?

I’d say, yes. The egg was a fake and the adults knew it was a fake. So, telling the children it was real was a lie. It was a benevolent lie, but a lie nonetheless.

Did it, however, constitute a valid exception?

Well… no. Not for me.

I can think of six reasons why we might lie to children.

They are in order of validity:

1. To keep them safe
2. To allay their fears
3. To protect them from uncomfortable or unpleasant ideas, events, and truths
4. To avoid telling them things you think they are not ready to hear about (for example, adult ‘matters’)
5. To entertain them, amuse them, or add some magic into their lives (Father Christmas, fairies etc.)
6. To invent engaging scenarios, such as simulations, (sometimes) for educational purposes. The dinosaur egg scenario fits this category.

For me, the cut off point is between 5 and 6.

I’ll come back to why later.

2. Creating imaginary scenarios for learning is an ineffective learning strategy

If you think the egg project was a major distraction from the serious business of curriculum learning, and an ineffective teaching method, then you are likely to be critical.

The criticism rests on an apparent dichotomy between learning and fun. Fun activities, it is argued, distract students from concentrating on the real purpose of school – curriculum learning. So, while they are enjoying themselves (drawing dinosaurs, writing about palaeontologists, etc.) they are not thinking about what they are studying, only experiencing a sense of enjoyment. This is not what learning is about: learning is about concentrated, dedicated, hard work; the rest is a frivolous distraction.

I’ve written a longer answer to this criticism here, but, in short, I believe the dichotomy is a false one and there is no reason why people can’t do both – enjoy themselves and work hard. The problem is not with exciting activities, but with weak planning and a lack of challenge. Just as didactic teaching can suffer if the students get bored and lose focus, so imaginative teaching can suffer if the activities concentrate too much on having fun and not enough on learning.

It is possible the dinosaur egg project suffered in this way. It is not clear, from the reports, that the students understood the project was about learning. If true, it is a major weakness in its design.

3. Engaging the students’ imagination.

If we take the headteacher at his word – “[the children produced] an enormous amount of high quality work” – then we can hardly say they weren’t working hard enough.

So, ‘what’s the harm?’ you might ask. ‘If students are working hard and the school are getting good results, isn’t the lie justified?’

Well, no. Not for me. It’s not a valid enough reason. I’m completely in favour of generating exciting and meaningful learning experiences for students, ones that stimulate their imagination and create enjoyable, purposeful, activities for learning. But I don’t think it justifies the lying.

More to the point, I don’t think its necessary. Why not tell them it’s a fiction from the beginning? That way, you get all the excitement and engagement, without having to lie.

Let me explain…

Let’s go back to the first morning of the dinosaur project. We (the teachers) have been in early to plant the fake eggs in a corner of the school field and we’re talking to our classes about what’s going to happen next.

“I don’t know if any of you have heard, but the teachers have been busy all this week making giant eggs for a story and the story is going to start this morning in the middle of a jungle: a jungle on an island, where no human beings have ever stepped foot.

“To start the story we’re going outside onto the field, where the eggs are, not as ourselves, but as explorers. But before we go, I was wondering what else we might find on the island…”

Starting this way has several advantages.

First, no lying, the students know exactly what’s going on from the beginning: the teachers have made the eggs, so they not real, and it’s all part of a story.

Second, the students are invited into the story, not as themselves, but as explorers. This gives them more influence and authority inside the fiction. This is important because it creates opportunities to make choices and contribute to the direction of the work.

Third, it gives the students the opportunity to collaborate on inventing the island. The imaginary scenario is not a simulation, but something co-created by the teacher and the students working together.

Fourth, this means the students have to do more of the work, creating more opportunities for learning.

Fifth, the location of the story is not the school field, but an imaginary island. This makes the fiction much clearer to the students, even the young ones

Because the teachers have made the fiction explicit from the beginning there is no need for confusion or fear. Any lingering worries can be quickly allayed by the teacher reminding the students it is all made up, just part of a story.

Creating imaginary scenarios for learning is not the same as pretending Father Christmas is real. School and home are different environments and our students are other people’s children, not our own. I’m not suggesting teachers should disabuse young children of the existence of Father Christmas or fairies in the garden (that really would get the Daily Mail foaming at the mouth), I’m suggesting we remain agnostic on the matter and, if asked, duck the answer: “Oh, I don’t know, what do you believe?” Young children are entitled to their beliefs, even if they are untrue, and it’s not our place to deny them.

Making up things, and pretending they are true, is a different matter. There are very few advantages and a lot of drawbacks, as the staff of the dinosaur egg school discovered to their cost. In my experience it’s far better to be upfront from the beginning. Children are quite capable of suspending their disbelief and the advantages to teaching and learning are far greater.

Children, like most people, don’t like finding out they have been lied to and tend to react badly. I remember planning half a term’s work based on some giant holes that had suddenly opened up around Norwich, swallowing half the city. This scenario was based on real events, including a double-decker bus that was nearly eaten by a collapsing mine shaft. The children knew about this story, it had been on the news, and so when I told them about the holes opening up in the city, they believed it. For half-an-hour there was a terrific buzz of excitement and great energy as they set about planning to rescue trapped people. Suddenly though the atmosphere changed when Jamie Burrell asked, ‘Is this real?’ I knew straight away I was in trouble, ‘Um, no’, I admitted, ‘it’s just a story.’ ‘Oh,’ said Jamie, ‘so you lied to us.’

And that was it. The project (and all my planning) went down one of the holes. All the energy left the room and within an hour the whole thing was dead.

A lesson for me.

What I should have done, is tell them right from the beginning that it was a ‘what if’ story…

‘I was thinking about that bus that fell in the hole, and wondering, what if, the holes started opening up all over the city? Then, what if we were a rescue team given the job of rescuing all the trapped people. Do you think that might make an exciting story?’

That way, when Jamie asked: ‘Is this real?’ I could have answered, ‘No, you remember we discussed it? It’s a ‘what if’ story, like a disaster movie, and because we’re making it up we can decide what happens next.’

I reckon that would have been much better than lying.

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