Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Filters: A Matter of Trust

As I get older I start to appreciate my mom a whole lot more and wonder if I would ever have the same strength to accomplish what she did. My father died when my twin sister and I were only 3 years old, leaving her to raise 3 children on her own in a very isolated country cabin. I sent my mom a Valentine’s Day card this year to let her know I love her but I also felt compelled to express how thankful I was for her constant love, support and trust. Instead of clinging to us, as some mothers might when faced with such a dear loss, she raised us to be inquisitive and adventuresome. She allowed us the freedom to explore (“I’ll send you a postcard from every country I visit!”) and trusted us to set our own boundaries (“I’ll be home by midnight”), and learn from our own mistakes (“oops…I won’t do THAT again!”), knowing that we could come to her for help or assistance if needed (“mom, we dared Jen to lick the mailbox and now she can’t get her tongue off”).Her implicit trust allowed for reciprocal honesty and a lack of fear that there would ever be unwarranted repercussions for mistakes and accidents, as long as we acted responsibly. She managed to find that delicate balance between protection and trust in our abilities. This is something that I think all parents juggle with. As a teacher, I also feel that most educators feel the need to create a safe, learning environment and protect our students’ safety. But I often wonder if we aren’t being too overprotective and create an atmosphere that limits creativity and inquiry, and impinges on intellectual freedom, especially when it comes to online, internet filters.

Almost all schools across Canada and the US have some form of content-filtering system in place. “In many cases, schools have cranked up their filters so high that students searching for an innocuous but easily misunderstood term can’t get anywhere” (Villano). This can be extremely frustrating for both students and teachers. For students, my concern goes beyond being blocked to valid information during research projects on topics like the Canadian beaver or breast cancer. When students are blocked by sites that they regularly access outside of school, it starts to create a “digital disconnect” and further supports the sentiment that “real-learning takes place at home” (Bell). It also sends the clear message to students that we don’t trust them to make the right decisions or stay safe online.

Many teachers are also frustrated by filtering. Again, my concern here goes past the obvious point that blocking sites is infringing on intellectual freedom. I am more concerned about the message that is being sent to educators that tech personnel (who haven’t necessarily studied education) have more right to judge which interactive sites are educational or not. To many teachers, it becomes a question of professional respect that they are not trusted to judge and make choices about the sites they’d like to access in their classrooms. Of course teachers can request to have sites unblocked. However, from my discussions with other colleagues, this can often be an onerous and time-consuming task, that requires administration to step in on our behalves. The end result, as pointed out by Cathy Nelson is complacency by many educators to accept the status quo, even if they don’t agree with the decisions being made.

I support Villano’s opinion that “filters are well-intentioned, but inadequate”. The fact is, many teens can still get around a standard filter and “surmount the protective wall constructed by school staff to keep them safe” buy using anonymous proxies (Losinski). This information is readily shared on Facebook sites that are devoted to sharing strategies for getting around school filters (Warlick). Not only does this waste valuable instructional time, but is a constant source of frustration for tech personnel. It also erodes the trust between teachers, students and administration. Again, I have to agree with Villano that this is not a dispute about whether or not we need to protect kids, but “whether or not mandated internet filters are the best way to achieve those safeguards” (Villano).

The best long term solution that I have seen proposed is “shifting the emphasis from policing the way students use the internet to educating them about using it more safely” (Villano). How will this impact my teaching in the short term? I will continue to teach my students some of the topics suggested by David Warlick including: digital citizenship, how to safeguard personal information, reporting and ignoring advances from strangers, how to handle cyber-bullying, and being courteous in online communication. I will also follow Buffy Hamilton’s advice and continue to educate my administration and tech personnel about the sites I want unblocked and show how they will improve student engagement and achievement. Most importantly, I need to remind my administration that students need guided instruction and opportunities to learn how to use social media thoughtfully and wisely (Hamilton). We need to give our students as many opportunities as possible to think for themselves, apply what they know and develop good judgment.

My mom is not only one of the greatest people I know, she was also a fantastic teacher for over 30 years. In my own classroom I often think about what makes for a successful student. The answer is often comprised of what my mother gave to me and my sisters – honesty, open dialogue, freedom to explore and many opportunities to build trust by allowing us to think for ourselves and show good judgment. I think we should be enabling our students to do the same.


Bell, Mary Ann. (Sept/Oct. 2008). I’m Mad and I’m Not Gonna Take it Anymore! Multimedia & Internet@Schools. p. 37-39.

Hamilton, Buffy. (December 10, 2009). Fighting the Filter. The Unquiet Librarian Blog. Retrieved from:

Losinski, Robert. (March 2007). Patrolling Web 2.0. T.H.E Journal. 34 (3), p. 50.

Nelson, Cathy. (October 17, 2009). Filters? A Problem of Complacency? Techno Tuesday Blog. Retrieved from:

Villano, Matt. (May 2008). What Are We Protecting Them From? T.H.E. Journal. 35 (5), p. 48.

Warlick, David. (July 11, 2009). Filters Work. 2Cents Worth Blog. Retrieved from:


Cathy Nelson said...


ShirJorg said...

Love your mom tie authentic approach. Thanks for sharing.