Blue Holes and baby names
searching for truth on the web...
I thought I'd describe a one-off lesson that stemed from the discovery of a brilliant You Tube film "Freefall" purporting to show world record free-diver Guillaume Nery "falling" to the bottom of a Blue Hole in the Bahamas. Like most of the 6.5 million other viewers, I wondered how the film was made, especially since the title volunteers the information that it was shot entirely on breath hold by Julie Gautier. A little research revealed the answer pretty quickly, but an impromptu session with a small group of students showed that the film lent itself to a satisfying research activity. I repeated the lesson roughly as described below with a different group of students; this time the emphasis was shifted to encompass a critical analysis of a recent Daily Mail article as part of an RE / Citizenship investigation. It seemed to go very well, and the students certainly enjoyed it.
I began the lesson without explaining the learning objectives. I used the classic BBC hoax Spaghetti Harvest (which still has the potential to fool some students) taking care not to reveal the title or the comments by starting the video in full screen mode. The more recent Flying Penguins April fool is a more contemporary option. I got students to consider a simple question: How do you know whether to trust the information on a website? We assembled some responses on the board. If our school's IP address wasn't blocked (I suspect most are) I would have illustrated how easy it is to alter Wikipedia to reinforce the point that online information cannot be trusted without corroboration .
choo choo shushhh!
At this point students could have reviewed a web page that describes a WW2 underground Jeep factory, that became a secret storage facility for steam engines, ensuring that the UK could still utilize the rail network after the electro-magnetic pulse of an atomic explosion. At first glance the page appears to have a legitimate Jeep-related URL, there is a genuine black and white image of the eastern entrance of Box tunnel, that a Geograph image will confirm, and finally an actual interview with a former employer!
Students could be pressed to explain why the site deserves a little scepticism (the title graphic and lack of any corroborating links.) A search for "Strategic Steam Reserve" reveals that the top secret stash of locomotives was nothing more than a rail-enthusiasts myth.
I showed the Free Fall film. The question for students to consider is whether the "Base jumper" really reaches the bottom of a Blue Hole on a single breath hold, as depicted in the film...
Immediately afterwards, I got students to generate some questions that could help them work out if the film is a work of fiction. I found that Year 8 students came up with questions such as...
What is the record for breath holding?
How long is the film clip?
Is Guillaume Nery a real person?
Is Dean's Blue Hole a real place?
What is a Blue Hole?
Where is Dean's Blue Hole?
They also needed to find out a little more about the discipline of free diving.
Since it was a small group, they were able to work in pairs, using a computer to research their questions. There were a few minutes of exciting discussion as opinions shifted to and fro, and new questions were devised. Pretty soon the group had located Dean's Blue Hole, and discovered the world record for a single breath hold was 19 minutes. Further research revealed that the Dean's Blue Hole is too deep for Nery to have reached the bottom, but a new theory based around the shape of the hole was advanced, with students claiming that the diver had merely stopped on a ledge around a sixth of the way down. We ended by using Guillaume Nery's blog to reveal the definitive answer to the investigation.
The students agreed that the FreeFall film was an artwork, and that it didn't matter if it was fiction or not. I suggested that the process of asking critical questions and searching for corroborative detail was a vital learning skill.
Mohammed is not the UK's most popular name for baby boys
Finally I distributed a recent article from the Daily Mail.
Without predjudicing the ensuing discussion at all, I got them to read the article in silence. Afterwards we talked about the story. The students were confused at the use of a white baby for the illustration, one voicing the opinion that the paper was attempting to avoid an accusation of racism, given the nature of the topic. Somewhat disappointingly none of the students questioned the veracity of the article, despite the preceding activities.
The mood in the class rapidly changed when we looked at the official statistics from which the paper had sourced it's story...
It was quite clear to the class that the article was utterly disingenuous, and many of the students were baffled as to why the story had been written in the first place. The students were unimpressed that the Mail had arrived at their conclusion by adding spelling variants; even less so when they learned that the paper had neglected to do the same for variants of the name Oliver. In fact a simple mathematical analysis reveals that approximately 3% of male babies were given Islamic names in 2009.
The students were quite capable of making their own minds up as to why the Daily Mail produced the article, and left the lesson slightly more sceptical of the press than when they had arrived. The message to "question everything" had been recieved and understood.
This lesson originated almost entirely from Facebook. Eminent underwater explorer Russell Carter shared the link to the Free Fall video. My friend, the Rev Mark Tanner wrote a comprehensive demolition of the Daily Mail article, while Professor Harvey Dauven turned up the fictious webpage about the strategic steam reserve. My thanks to all of these fine and upstanding members of the community.
How did The Sun report the story? More accurately it seems!