At one time, the biggest enemy to education was ignorance. And the chief source of false information was rumours in the school playground. The focus in schools was firmly on helping students to acquire knowledge and widen their horizons.
These days, those teaching in the UK and teaching abroad have a similar mountain to climb: how to show students ways of finding what is true in an age of “too much” information.
The US President has firmly established the principle of “fake news” in the global consciousness and the rumblings from Britain’s shock Brexit vote are still causing fevered debate in countless homes. Added to this sea of confusion is the phenomenal infiltration social media has achieved in recent years, creating with it a tsunami of information that has little or no “truth filters” built into it.
For today’s students, there is plenty of information available and ways to acquire it, and the teacher’s role is geared more towards helping them to sort through it with common sense and insight.
The UK job market needs analytical school leavers
It could be argued that future generations of school leavers will need sharpened analytical skills every day of their working lives. Not just to be able to judge between fact and fiction, but also because all industry and commerce of the future is being built on rapidly advancing technology and a massive amount of information – huge data sets known as “Big Data”.
Computer giant IBM put Big Data into context when it announced that around 90% of the information in the world today was gathered in the last two years.
The workplace that today’s students will enter is increasingly involved in sourcing, collating, analysing and utilising this massive amount of information - whatever career that ultimately choose.
In the face of so much “data” at their fingertips every day on smartphones and tablets, how do teachers in the UK help students make sense of what is real and develop abilities to comprehend and utilise their own “filtering” skills? How can teachers create a generation that uses information effectively, rather than being overwhelmed by it?
Sifting through what is real and fake in news and social media “chatter” can lead to politically sensitive discussions in classrooms. When asked to verify and evidence their views and findings, students may use sources that are debatable in their credibility.
However, teachers are in the best possible position to use these opportunities to show how that there are different sides to every argument and how facts can be manipulated and used selectively to back up opposing views.
A dispassionate and non-political “referee” in the classroom can provide a constructive platform for debate and investigation. Teachers can offer techniques and methods to enable students to make sure that the information they use is valid and credible.
Using the myths and legends propagated by social media, in relation to recent world events, can particularly provide insights into how unfounded information can distort and mislead.
It could well be that developing these analytical and evaluation skills to control and use information becomes part of the future curriculum.
How to verify “facts”
Amongst the ways teachers can help students develop ways to seek out information that is valid and credible is to explain such things as: copyright, how to check the credentials of anyone quoted, how to compare information from three of more sources, the relevance of the timeline of the information, and the “age” of the source. In essence, what constitutes a reliable and trusted source?
One of the most important litmus tests that can be used to help students develop their analytical evaluation of information from any source is its purpose. Does it appear to be aimed at informing or influencing?
Context through history
One subject which can best be used to support analysis and build perceptive students is history. Looking at the past and how political and social history has shaped today’s world gives context to some of the confusing messages they may have to sort through.
The way in which education itself has played a role in identifying and protecting basic human rights is an anchor for learning in an age when “alt-news” muddies the waters. It is impossible to separate the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” without overturning centuries of progression.
There are certainly abundant examples of “fake news” from the past that can show that though it is now prolific, it is not new. Check out the propaganda from both sides of the French Revolution for examples.
One of the ways UK teachers can enable students to seek out “truth” is to develop the principle of “common sense”. By the very process of exposing that there are “shades” of truth and falsehood in current information, you provide them with permission to use their own natural intuition and evaluation skills.
One of the biggest misconceptions teachers come across in modern classrooms, is that if information is available on the internet, it must be true! Fortunately, there are plenty of contradictory samples which can illustrate the need for students to be discerning and apply intelligent reasoning.
What about the cynical and distrusting students?
Discussions of fake news - and the controversy of current world affairs - may engender a sense of distrust amongst some students that renders them immune to taking in facts. Teachers in the UK are again in a unique position to offset this and teach media literacy.
It’s right to take in as much information as possible, even what may or may not be fake. But students need to be ready to sort through it using their own intuition and support from reliable sources.
If nothing else, recent world events, the dominance social media has in student’s lives and the advent of Big Data, all combine to provide UK teachers with an abundance of “teachable moments”.