Teaching the Truth

You know there’s something wrong with our education system when (according to an Ipsos Mori poll) only 9% of British teenagers can name the current Prime Minister.

I made up that figure. I have no idea how many teenagers know who the PM is (the link takes you to a picture of Michael Barrymore). My bogus statistic would likely elicit either a tut of frustrated agreement (kids!) or set your teeth on edge (another guy who hates kids!).

Hopefully, you would question its validity – I’m just a random blogger who is accountable to no one and has just used a link to an image of Michael Barrymore masquerading as an Ipsos Mori poll to support my point (and an image of Italo Calvino just then). However, many of us are predisposed to believe something if it chimes with our existing world view. Someone who thinks kids don’t know anything would be particularly susceptible to believing the fabricated figure above.

The problem is if I’d written a whole article about how little teenagers know and then presented it to my students, I don’t think many would challenge it. This is especially true if I’d added in some more figures, some unclicked Barrymore links, a nice-looking graph and quoted the odd fabricated expert (‘the head of the Oxford University Institute for Adolescent Studies, Professor Errol Flynn explained that…’). The linguistic conventions of authoritative writing can be used to mask dodgy content.

This year’s presidential election brought into sharp focus the dramatic rise of false news sites and our inability as a society to distinguish between truth and complete fabrication. Every source of information offers some form of interpretation or bias, but with the change in the way we access news, as well as the abundance of news sources, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

A study carried out on Stanford University students found that many participants were unable to make a distinction between the credibility of the content on the website for the American Academy of Pediatrics (a professional association of 66,000 doctors) and the American College of Pediatricians (a small splinter group of 500 members with an evangelical agenda).

When you look at the two websites, both look clean, clear and professional. Both use scientific language and make reference to facts and figures authoritatively. It’s only when you start digging into the affiliations of the membership that it becomes clear that the latter is an ideologically-driven pressure group which is warping research evidence to push a specific agenda (they, for instance, make links between homosexuality and paedophilia).

English teaching has failed to adapt to this new writing environment. We teach the conventions of a newspaper article (headline, sub-heading, facts, expert quotes, blah blah, AQA mark scheme) but fail to discuss truth. We teach about bias in terms of hyperbolic language while we discuss credibility in terms of ‘expert quotes’ and statistics. We don’t spend enough time talking about who the experts are and how the statistics have been generated. The teaching of English is so focused on form that we have forgotten about content.

When writing a newspaper article or opinion piece students often ask me if they can make up statistics. In the past I’ve said yes, but on reflection, good journalistic writing is not just about style but about accuracy and integrity. I shouldn’t be teaching students to ape the truth but to write it.

There is much that needs to be addressed here in other subjects. For example, maths teachers need to be dealing with the use of statistics in political contexts and how charts can be used to tell lies. Good history teaching has always been about challenging the credibility of different sources and showing an awareness of differing interpretations. However, not enough schools make the most of this cross-curricular potential.

English teachers need to react quickly. We need to continue to teach about bias but go further and expect more rigour from our students. Instead of just the bias that is apparent in the language of the writer, we should also look at the platform or website itself; does it have an agenda? Who is funding it? Can we corroborate their facts with other, reliable sources? If they reference statistics or studies, are they good ones?

When thinking about the purpose of a text we need to go beyond ‘to persuade’, ‘to argue’, ‘to explain’ and we need to introduce ‘to provoke’, ‘to raise advertising revenue’ or ‘to push a specific agenda’. Our understanding of why a text is written needs to become more nuanced.

The C.R.A.P. test is a useful model for this kind of critical reading:

  • Currency: How recently the article was written?
  • Reliability: What biases are present and are the cited sources reliable?
  • Authority: Who is the author, what level of expertise do they offer and who is the site’s sponsor; are they credible?
  • Purpose: What is the website’s overall purpose, does it generate advertising revenue and who is the audience?

We must develop our students’ critical reading skills. As I have mentioned in a previous post, much of this is about providing students with a sufficient knowledge and understanding of the world. But it is also about teaching a critical approach to texts. We should encourage students to challenge poor assertions and weak evidence but to also respect and celebrate well-founded research and good journalism.

In class students should be reading false news and finding the holes in it. They should be comparing this to well-researched, thoughtful journalism. They should be fabricating their own stories and passing them off as real, just to see how easy it is. They should be learning about how to fact-check articles and have an understanding of who funds the content they read. They should be thinking about coded language and how many words are freighted with meaning.

We should be teaching our students that good writing is not just about complex vocabulary and powerful rhetoric, but about intelligent ideas, integrity and truth.

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