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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is the Internet the New Sex Education?

By Lisa Westman — November 02, 2016 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

In 1995 I enrolled at Indiana University as a Freshman. As I struggled to determine my major (journalism, education, or business), my dad offered me some very solid advice. He said, “Lisa, whatever you major in, just be sure to take psychology courses. That will help you in any field.”

And, he was right. My first college course was Psychology 101. In that class, I learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Grasping this basic psychological concept has proven tremendously helpful in understanding people, their motivations, and their reactions. Maslow categorizes the biological needs of humans into five categories:

1) physiological-food, sleep, air

2) safety- shelter, protection from danger

3) belonging- love, affection, being part of a group

5) esteem- self-respect, respect for others, feeling accomplished

5) self-actualization- achieving individual potential

Once we have our basic (physiological) needs met, we attempt to exert control on numerous aspects of our lives as means of survival. (Wikipedia)

However, sometimes we confuse our internal locus of control (what we choose to do, how we react) with our external locus of control (what others do, outside forces). Striving to manage external forces gives us a perceived sense of control and we superficially feel better. However, this sense of control is a facade, because, no matter how hard we cannot control external factors.

This confusion frequently occurs in our efforts to keep ourselves and our children physically and emotionally safe both at home and at school. For example, take the long-standing debate over whether or not sexual education should be taught in school. Both proponents and opponents of sex ed attempt to control the content which students should/should not be exposed.

Regardless of the side, both parties seek the same thing: to control what students learn about sex to protect them from engaging in activity that could be harmful. We exert our external locus of control to feel as if we are protecting our students. For more than half of the states in our country this “control” takes the form of abstinence-only sex education programs. (NCSL)

“We (educators) will teach you (students) sex ed, but, we will protect you by only teaching you about abstinence.”

But, the role of an educator is not to protect students by covering content. The role of an educator is to protect students by ensuring they develop rich critical thinking skills and can protect themselves.

What is frustrating to me is a parallel I see between this protective approach to teaching sex ed and a similar approach to teaching research skills in today’s classrooms. In an effort to keep children “safe” educators and parents exert external control. This week alone I have seen the following examples:


  • Students are forbidden from using Wikipedia because (the teacher) deemed the site “not credible.”

  • Students are not able to use online sources for a research paper because they are too tempted to copy and paste (plagiarize).

  • Students are not allowed to Google answers to questions because this is cheating.

“We (educators) will let you (students) research, but, we will protect you by only allowing you to use [this] source.”

While these attempts to control research conduct are grounded in the best interest of students; this effort is in vain. We can not control the ease of access to vast amounts of information that students have nor can we control the accuracy of the information available. But, we can control how we teach students to use and analyze the information.

And, this is not my opinion. This is a fact and our obligation to students. The Common Core writing and research standards which vertically align learning expectations for K-12th-grade students prescribe the following as expectations for a 5th-grade student:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.6 With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others;

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.8: Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; summarize or paraphrase information in notes and finished work, and provide a list of sources.

So, how do we keep our students safe?

Let students use Wikipedia and other sites they are inclined to use. Credible researchers corroborate their findings with other research. If students find conflicting information they will need to search more and compare additional sources which is what we want. Teach students how to verify information. Offer them actionable feedback throughout the research process. Engage in discussion about how to decipher if an argument is credible and how credibility is perceived by others. Teach students about confirmation bias and why understanding a counterargument is vital to fully understand any argument.

Don’t make books a punishment. Making the internet off-limits for student research is an unrealistic expectation and will certainly create resistance and resentment amongst students. Books can add depth to an argument backed with information from the web. Help students discover this breadth.

What should you do if students copy and paste? First, determine if this was intentional or inadvertent. “Plagiarizing” can be tempting for students because someone has already said what they want to say. The original author has likely stated the content more succinctly than the student thinks they can. Plagiarizing is not necessarily done to “skirt the system.” Point out how the student has done a quality job finding evidence and then work with them to incorporate evidence without infringing the author’s work. Either way, explicitly teach and offer feedback regarding how and when to paraphrase and cite work. If the problem persists, consider altering the assignment to help the student avoid copy and pasting.

Look at Google as a friend, not foe. Did you Google something today? Were you “cheating” or being resourceful? Google is like a calculator; an instrument which makes accessing information more efficient. With the right content and task, Google can powerfully impact and advance learning. Embrace the power and celebrate that we no longer need take up time or cognitive space memorizing facts. Facts will naturally be committed to memory with repeated exposure and authentic application. Adapt questions and tasks to require higher level analysis and synthesis.

Most importantly, take a step back and consider what you are trying to control and why. Temptations in life will always be present. Misinformation will also always be present. A teacher will not be. The sign of a solid education is when our students have the tools they need to rely on their internal locus of control and make informed decisions when we are not there to “protect” them.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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