A Question (and a Straw Man) About Lying to ChildrenFebruary 3, 2014
I have a question about something that I’m not terribly familiar with. I have a question about lying to small children. But first, let me deal with the straw man this question seems to have created in the minds of some of the more excitable people in the education blogging world.
From When Lies are Lovely on Debra Kidd’s blog yesterday evening:
Some weeks ago, there was a spat on twitter about role play in which it was described as lying to children. Having just spent several weeks telling my youngest that the red light on our alarm censor was Santa’s CCTV camera, I was pulled up very much as a liar. But I justified it because for a few weeks, he went to bed when asked and brushed his scummy teeth. Ends justified the means. But is it ok to lie to children in school?
Well, if you’re skilled at using role play, your really don’t have to. Starting sentences with ‘can we agree that this represents’ or ‘we’re building a story today…’ or ‘if’ mitigates the possibility that children might be conned. There was once an awful example of a school in Blackburn where children were taken into a room while staff let off fireworks outside. The head told the children that WW3 had broken out. And unsurprisingly, the children were very upset. That’s pretty stupid in my book. But to use fiction to entice, to stimulate, to (shock, horror) engage children in learning? That’s just a good thing to do. So….
Not exactly sure of the educational benefits of the roleplaying she describes in the rest of the post, but it’s not my area, so fair enough. Whoever these people are who think all role-playing is a form of lying, they can’t be very sensible. And this is not the first blog touching on this topic. From “Make-believe is not the same as lying” on the Imagine Inquiry blog:
…lying involves an intention to deceive for unscrupulous reasons. For me, the motivation is all-important when we are talking about adults ‘lying’ to children. If adults lie to children to deceive them for unscrupulous reasons, then this is reprehensible and has no place in a classroom (or anywhere else). However, if adults create an imaginary scenario or context for or with the children, with the primary intention of developing their learning, then the motivation is principled and it should not be called lying. I prefer the term make-believe.
A serious allegation
The accusation that adults lie to children every time they tell them an untruth is one lacking nuance and sophistication. It implies teachers who use imaginary situations in their classrooms are acting in an unprincipled way, deceiving their students, without their agreement or understanding and against their best interests.
Well good on you Tim. Whoever these people are going on about lying, they are clearly wrong. I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, and this is the earliest of our three blogs on this topic, there is something going on here beyond me quoting from blogs I happen to agree with by people who spend a lot of their online life bitching about me. Here, from Primary Ramblings, is “WHY DO PRIMARY TEACHERS “LIE” TO THEIR PUPILS?“, the story of the origin of these terrible accusations. This section follows a description of an activity where students pretended to be taking a trip to Australia:
At no point did I say, “We’re only pretending to fly to Australia”. There was a tacit understanding that what we were doing was ‘make-believe’ and the children bought into it fully, immersing themselves in the excitement of going on holiday to a foreign country. At 3.15 many of the children came and told me that this had been one of the best days ever; that they had loved flying to Australia and that they wanted to learn more about the country. The next day they came in with photos, books, souvenirs and a thirst for knowledge about all things Australian. They were hooked and wanted to learn more.
So why, I wonder, do some teachers regard such activities as dishonest and duplicitous? Last night @oldandrewuk tweeted (about another blogpost):
“This is the 2nd time I’ve seen a blog about primary teaching based on lying to the kids. Are people okay with this?”
I couldn’t help but reply, and an interesting “debate” ensued, where @oldandrewuk tied my words in knots and tripped me up over semantics.
However hard he tried to make me look foolish and question my ideology, @oldandrewuk cannot convince me that we are “lying” to children in any sort of sinister way and that immersing children in their learning through drama or simply through setting up scenarios that encourage them to suspend their disbelief is a practice that needs “justifying”.
Good grief, what a bastard. Objecting to an activity which seems to have been both fun and informative on the basis of such a silly accusation. Who is this malevolent Tweeter? The name rings a bell…
Oh, crap it’s me.
Yes, I am apparently the guilty man. I am the one who objects to role-playing on grounds of honesty. Taking a position that seems to be half-way between Plato and Sheldon Cooper I have declared war on play, role-playing and, no doubt, Santa Claus. And just in case anyone is under any doubt that it’s all my fault, here is Debra Kidd’s facetious comment from the second of our 3 blogs:
Very clever analysis Tim and you put to shame some of the sloppy thinking of those we shall not name (ironically those who choose to remain nameless and are thereby lying about their identity!)
I had intended to let this drop. I was annoyed at reading comments like this (and other in a similar vein):
How sad that we have someone like Andrew old teaching our children who obviously fundamentally fails to understand the learning and thought processes of human beings. I find it incredible that someone of his supposed erudition can have such ignorance.
However, I assumed it would all blow over. But no we are getting close to a month later and people are still writing blogs about the terrible accusations I’ve made. So I figure I might as well point out what I actually commented on, what I actually said, so that at least if this continues people have a fair idea of who’s being straight here.
Some time back, I read this blogpost about a literacy day in a primary school.
Several staff and SLT meetings into term, the idea of a whole-school writing day had been mentioned, without particular conviction, numerous times; vague ideas had been put forward and then quickly dismissed as the weeks passed. On one miserable morning though, waiting for the very last Year Six latecomers to arrive, I noticed that the patch of unused wasteland adjacent to our field had been occupied by builders who, in a matter of days, already had the shells of new housing erected, with construction continuing apace.
Buoyed by the idea that slowly unveiled itself to me over the next few days, I asked at the end of the next staff meeting to talk about the by-now maligned topic of a writing day: what if we could secure the loan of builders’ tools, machinery and apparel, spread them over our grounds before the start of school one day and tell the children that, unless they could prevent them from doing so, our neighbouring builders would be turning the field into houses too?
As luck had it, an ex-parent was the proprietor of a local construction company and, after a surprsingly simple phone call, an agreement had been reached whereby he would provide us with diggers, skips, a lorry, cement mixers and less glamorous but equally authentic hard hats and high-vis vests.
So, with props acquired and a rough idea of what we wanted to achieve formualted, the (enjoyable, as it turned out) process of planning a writing day began. We decided to abandon yeaching by year goups and opted instead to group children by similar levels of attainment; we agreed on a series of progressively more challenging tasks which began with writing protest slogans and banners and stretched to writing and delivering persuasive speeches.
With planning and preparation complete, one final flourish was added: a local actor agreed to join us for the project, playing the role of the high-ranking council official who would have the final say in whether or not the proposed building would be allowed to proceed…
I found the whole thing fascinating. I reblogged it on the Echo Chamber. It all seemed exciting and genuinely educational. However, there didn’t seem to be any indication that the kids would understand that events were staged and I did wonder about that. Then, last month I read this blogpost about activities based around a teacher claiming to have lost a pencil case. Again, there seemed to be no indication that the children would consider events to be anything other than real. It struck me then how casually lying to the class was presented as a stimulus for activity, and so, on Twitter, I asked the question:
This is the 2nd time I’ve seen a blog about primary teaching based on lying to the kids. Are people okay with this?
There was nothing in either blog to suggest that the children were party to the role-playing. It was not about role-playing. And it was not intended to indicate that I had decided it was all wrong, just that I was wondering whether it was wrong. That’s all. There was a post on Mumsnet on a similar topic:
Today ds1 went abck [sic] to school and was really looking forward to it.
I went to get him at 3.15 and he was absolutely busting to tell me about the ‘thing’ that had landed in the woodland bit of the playground.
I followed him and a large crowd of grown ups and children was standing around this thing, which looked to me very much like a huge air conditioning unit half buried in the ground, with a slightly blackened tree next to it.
I have to admit I immediately thought it was a kind of set up, for fun – there was stripey tape all round it and nobody allowed to touch.
Ds told me that it had apparently ‘crashed’ last night, and was from a satellite or spaceship or similar and it even had the voltage written on it!
He loves this kind of thing so was utterly serious and really quite blown away by the idea. They had spent all day finding out about it and someone from the BBC had apparently come and interviewed a witness, with a microphone but no camera.
There is nothing on the BBC website. The newsletter just arrived and there is a large paragraph about it – ‘We hope the children enjoyed the ‘space mystery’ today, our project this term is all about space’ etc etc…
I didn’t know what to do, so stupidly, probably, I told ds it wasn’t actually from a spaceship, and he started to cry
I mean is this just like the Father Christmas thing we do with them, or is it actually rather cruel of them to lie about something so potentially thrilling – I have probably done the wrong thing but he would have found out later anyway no doubt and been MORE upset.
He is insisting the newsletter is wrong and is very cross and fed up.
Can anyone talk me down, I really don’t need another confrontation with the HT…I am just so sad for him.
It’s got me thinking, but I don’t deal with small children. I’ve never even had to think about things like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Not my area at all. But I can think of lies that I thought were justified, and lies that weren’t, in a school context, and I did wonder about these three scenarios. I think part of my concern is a wider issue about manipulating students and their feelings. A lot of talk about “engagement” is about making students feel the way that suits us, regardless of whether we should be trying to manipulate their feelings. So I am curious, just curious, about this issue and would like to hear from teachers of young children as to what they think.
But will people please stop writing blogs arguing with this ridiculous straw man about all role-playing being lying? It’s almost like some people just want an excuse to have a go.
Update 22/7/2014: I can’t resist adding this story from the BBC to the examples.
A head teacher has apologised after a 3ft (90cm) fake egg designed to aid learning ended up scaring pupils. The egg was part of a project which aimed to encourage group discussion at Holy Trinity Primary School, Halstead. Headmaster Jon Smith told parents there had been an “amazing discovery” and the egg had been “cordoned off”. But an apology was issued after it emerged some had been “worried by it” and one parent posted on Twitter that their children had been “in tears”.