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10 Feb 2017

Dispelling your students’ and your own pre-conceived ideas

In the last 20 years, has extreme poverty almost doubled, has it stayed the same or has it halved?

On Tuesday 7th February, the world lost a unique and talented educator. You might not have heard about it. In fact, I doubt that many people noticed any press coverage – the BBC obituary only hung around on the ‘most read’ list for a couple of hours at number 101. However, the loss of Hans Rosling is a sizeable one to the international and educator community. He dedicated himself to dispelling pre-conceived ideas and generally held ignorance about health and poverty and managed to make millions of people more knowledgeable and more positive about the world around them.

This blog is directly inspired by Hans’ speeches and presentations about pre-conceived ideas. Essentially, he began most of his talks by drawing attention to our commonly-held mistaken beliefs about basic global facts. These beliefs tend to stem from negative press reports, politicians’ rhetoric, and individual prejudices. In Hans’ and Ola’s words, these beliefs come from ‘personal bias’, ‘news bias’, and from ‘outdated facts’2. Though our own experiences and news exposure lead to unique thoughts and ideas, some of these beliefs/rules are fairly universal across most western societies; we tend to think the world is getting gradually worse; that global catastrophes are more likely than they are; and that there is a huge gap between the rich and poor.

The reason these beliefs are such a problem is that they mean that we make much worse decisions than random at answering important questions. Let’s take the opening question. If you had guessed that extreme poverty has doubled in the past 20 years, you would be entirely incorrect. Poverty has in fact almost halved. Yet when asked this question only 5% of the American adult public answered correctly3. This is far worse than just guessing (which would lead to 33% of the public getting the answer right). This demonstrates that the beliefs we have in our head, irrational and ill-formed, prevent us from making correct decisions.

Now let’s apply this to the political realm of the UK. Take Brexit for example. In March of 2016, Nigel Farage made a series of statements emphasising that if we remained as part of the EU we could be at greater threat of a terrorist attack. Whether or not this is true, these statements played on the inaccurate pre-conceived belief that you or I are in real danger of being a victim of a terrorist catastrophe. In fact, there are far fewer terrorist casualties in Western Europe now than in the 1970s and 1980s4. We are far more likely to fall victim to a road accident or die of a heart attack from over-eating. This is not a partisan illustration on the side of the Remain camp, it is instead it is designed to show that our pre-conceptions can lead to misguided judgments if they are allowed to influence our political decisions. As teachers, our job should be to help dispel these irrational concepts.

Moving to the classroom (I can hear a sigh of relief from the remaining readers who were sufficiently patient to wade through political meanderings), addressing pre-conceived misjudgements is at the heart of SMSC teaching. Yet it is rarely directly addressed. Here are three brief but practical tips for targeting widely-held pre-conceptions.

  • Challenge you own pre-conceptions

I once walked-in on a tutorial time where a teacher was telling their form how in the developing world, most girls did not receive an education. This was entirely incorrect. The global average for years in education is now nearly equal across genders. Yet through their own pre-conceptions, that teacher encouraged their class to think negatively about education for women in developing countries (admittedly, in a minority of countries girls receive less of an education but this should not be the basis of generalisation). It is vital as wise-beings who students come to for knowledge, that teachers ensure they do not hold misguided beliefs. An easy way of challenging your own views is to look at what is actually going on, the Gapminder site is ideal for this.

  • Give your students one easy question per week to broaden their horizons

Admittedly, working with students to dissect prejudices and ill-informed assumptions is a time-consuming task. However, it can be broken down into chunks. Instead of devoting hours to this idea, you can instead tackle one assumption at a time, once a week, for five minutes. Using one question per week from this resource, you can challenge one assumption at a time. In addition, you can do the same with your own subject-specific content to challenge this. For example you could start a Maths lesson by challenging the idea that boys are better at Maths than girls – GCSE results show that the two genders are exactly level, yet interestingly, more boys go on to study Maths in higher education.

  • Replace an assembly with this video

Finally, an especially easy tip. This exceptional programme contains an overview of global health and poverty and is a great starting point for students who want to move past their pre-conceptions. This can be supplemented by the Ola Rosling Ted Talk on ‘How not to be ignorant about the world’. The content is simple enough for KS4 students to understand.

Hans Rosling’s overall message to his audience was that the world is getting better and we should be mindful of that. He implored listeners to see past the negativity in press headlines and the narrow-sighted and poorly-evidenced stories that encourage society to think the best days are behind us. He was an optimistic and a fact-driven educator, a person for which there is great demand at this time. We should carry on his example and bring up our students to trust data and statistics rather than their own prejudices and experiences.

The students of today hold the fate of our future leaders in their hands. It is vitally important that they understand the data and views they should consider before making political decisions. We need an electorate that is well aware of its own ignorance and seeks truth before voting rather than reassurance in an echo-chamber of misguided opinion. The responsibility for this hangs heavily on busy teachers’ shoulders. However, with simple, practical exercises, they can make a start at achieving this goal.



  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-38900572

  2. Hans and Ola Rosling, 2014, https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world

  3. Hans and Ola Rosling, 2014, https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world

  4. Datagraver, 2016, http://www.datagraver.com/case/people-killed-by-terrorism-per-year-in-western-europe-1970-2015


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