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Charlotte Avery of St Mary's School on preparing young people for a 'post-truth' world

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Charlotte Avery headteacher
Charlotte Avery headteacher

Social media has given everybody access to a global platform for their opinions, often ?dressed up as fact. How can pupils find the truth among the misinformation? St Mary's School headmistress Charlotte Avery explains the important role schools have to play.

I decided some time ago to write about ‘the importance of political and digital literacy in a time of memes and social shares’, to tie in with the culmination of the US election

As it turns out, it also ties in with developments closer to home regarding the legal proceedings for exiting the EU. In both instances there have been many who claim that those expressing shock at the results are ‘the elites’, ‘college educated’, and the political class, as well as political commentators and pollsters – and that these people are all simply out of touch with ‘regular voters’.

Whilst it isn’t for me to comment on the policy differences of the US candidates or their parties, nor on the UK’s current situation regarding exiting the EU, other than to say that in both instances there are undoubtedly genuine concerns held by voters on both sides, I do want to reflect on: ■ the changing ‘rules’ of political discourse; ■ the influence of the media, and ‘new media’, in politics; ■ how important it is to ensure young people become politically and digitally literate through their education – it is essential, not elitist

On the first point, the comments made by a reporter on the US Elections 2016: Who’s Won the White House? programme describe my thoughts. The reporter raises the issue of whether voters believe politicians, and experts, anymore, and questions whether a long-standing distrust is providing politicians with carte blanche to make promises that they may not have any intention of fulfilling: “Distrust has walked hand in hand with a revolt against expertise. It has brought a new age of post-truth politics. First, public scepticism towards the glib and oily arts of political spin, now, a widespread disregard for evidence. The Brexit campaign promised £350million a week, available for the NHS. It wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter… Trump as a candidate threatened to jail his opponent. [In his acceptance speech] he said the country owed her an immense debt of gratitude for her long service.”

Additionally, as well as having a ‘looser’ relationship with the truth, there seems to be among some voters less propensity to analyse the nuances of policy proposals. Traditionally, politicians have been acutely aware of the potential inferences of their every utterance, resulting in them repeating, almost verbatim, the party line – so as not to unwittingly infer anything else. But at a time when many voters seem to support campaigns that are not primarily focused on policy, as much as sentiment or values, is it time for politicians on both sides to worry less about the detail and more about the tone of their rhetoric? I wonder too whether it is those politicians who are realising the change that has occurred among (some groups of) voters and adapting to it who are now causing these ‘shockwaves’.

Radio 4’s The Media Show raised the question: ‘Why did the news media flunk the US election?’ As part of the discussion, the impact of social media, and instant news, was discussed. One point of note is that Facebook now acts as a publisher, publishing and distributing articles that are knowingly ‘false news’, in a format that looks credible and can be easily shared. (I’m not suggesting that Facebook was knowingly publishing this ‘false news’, rather that in the digital age where there is a wealth of information online and no human ‘gatekeeper’, as there would be with a traditional newspaper editor). It can be difficult for all of us, when discussing events such as these with friends and colleagues, to provide evidence to support our viewpoints, as there is just so much conflicting information available. How much more difficult, then, must it be for our young people, especially those who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of the political processes, let alone the ways to influence them, to be able to interpret the campaigns, the hype, the stereotypes, the intricacies and nuances of policy differences, and unfolding events, such as last week’s election result?

As a school our duty is to inform and educate students about the world and how it works (and so, for instance, Dr Alison Gundy, head of history and politics, ran assemblies to explain how the mechanics of the US election would work, including the electoral role and so on), but also to nurture in them the desire and tools to critically analyse the situations they find themselves watching or participating in. We encourage discussion in lessons, assemblies, extra-curricular clubs, and Days of Reflection (to name a few) about many of the issues that are at play in an election – such as the environment, equality, and trade – so that the girls can develop a basic understanding of the range of views that are held, and how these views may influence a person’s vote.

Young people today are faced with an almost overwhelming choice of sources of information about current events.

As already mentioned, traditional sources such as newspapers and TV news have been joined by a vast array of social media channels, in which accurate and unbiased reporting is often sacrificed for sensationalism and political bias; news and rumours can spread at what seems like an alarming rate.

For better or worse, young people are inveterate users of these new types of media, so it is also essential that as teachers we engage with them and help our students to make sense of what is true, what is exaggerated, and what is simply untrue.

In the junior school our creative curriculum allows pupils to explore topics in real depth. An example is the Year 5 Africa topic, in which the girls learn about apartheid as well as present day South Africa, and debate the situation and injustices on both sides.

In sixth-form politics lessons the girls often survey recent news, and especially the coverage of both the EU referendum and the US election, where facts and statistics have been manipulated by all parties in order to sway voters’ views.

In physics lessons the girls are also encouraged to criticise the way science statistics are presented in the news – often without sufficient analysis having been conducted.

In art, too students are asked to consider the purpose and context of artwork in order to analyse it.

History students throughout the school are taught to read historical sources with care and a critical eye and not to take them at face value.

It is so important that in all areas of the curriculum, the girls are encouraged to question what they are learning, and analyse the context of their sources and what the bias might be in what they’re reading.

Year 11 history students are also learning about images being Photoshopped, and that this is not new – 90 years ago Stalin altered photographs to give the impression that he was much closer to Lenin than was really the case.

Students (in fact all of us) who consume media which focuses only on a narrow political ideology need to be challenged to broaden their (our) horizons by reading and engaging with different points of view.

It could be argued that encouraging young people to consider more, rather than fewer, opinions, will only add to the confusion about what is really true.

However, when students are given the opportunity to discuss, challenge and evaluate viewpoints, both with each other and with us as adults, we give them the confidence and tools to approach the news with a critical eye, a questioning mind and a tolerant heart.

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