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24 Mar 2017

Tackling fake news in schools

Andreas Schleicher, Education Director of the OECD* made headline news this week when he called for schools to teach young people how to identify ‘fake news’.

His focus is on teenagers, and he urged them to look beyond the social media ‘echo chamber’ where only views which broadly reflect existing opinion are relayed back.

The spotlight on ‘fake news’ isn’t entirely new: back in 2013 Tim Cook, Chief Executive of Apple said that “there has to be a massive campaign” against misinformation and digital propaganda, adding that “it has to be ingrained in the schools.”

But there’s been something of a perfect storm recently, with tumultuous political events concentrating the mind on the issue.  Donald Trump has been hitting the headlines by calling out ‘fake’ news stories that don’t support his point of view. Equally, the fall-out from the Brexit vote, where both Leave and Remain campaigns were accused of being less than honest about the facts, left many voters confused about the objective evidence base on both sides of the argument.

With an increasing public understanding about the power of alternative sources of online news media, which often use content produced by its own consumers rather than journalists, it’s not difficult to understand why Mr Schleicher is highlighting this issue.

Not many people would disagree with him that “distinguishing what is true from what is not true is a critical judgement”. Clearly, the ability to assess an evidence base in order to reach as informed a decision as possible, is a crucial skill, and one which impacts all spheres of life: politics, relationships, health and work.

Nor would many disagree with his move to introduce written questions on “global competency” in the influential Pisa tests** scheduled for 2018. These are aimed at assessing the capacity of young people to see the world through different perspectives and to establish if they are sufficiently open to new cultures and thinking. In short, says Mr Schleicher, the extent to which they are being prepared and are “ready for a diverse and interconnected world”.

But the real question: is how do we, as a society, help young people develop these vital, yet difficult-to-capture skills of being open-minded; willing to listen and to acknowledge views that are not our own? And, deeply connected, how do we hone the ability to distinguish what is true from what is fake?

Once again, teachers are right there on the front line, being called on to deal with an issue which is complex and closely linked with the powerful social media news feeds which are growing in their reach, with the power to heavily influence the teenagers who avidly consume them.

This news is easy-to-access because of social media channels, its low cost and, often, high visual appeal. But, if the algorithms are playing back already deeply held views and opinions, what is at stake, is the ability to acknowledge cultural diversity and an exchange of ideas leading to preparation for life in an interconnected world, where diversity and difference of opinion is celebrated.

So far, it’s looking a little disheartening.

But, although clearly at a much more grass roots level than the heady-heights, global level of Apple’s Tim Cook or the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, the comments coming back from grass-roots teachers tell a slightly different story.

VotesForSchools runs a voting platform for young people, with a weekly vote on a topical issue, with the question taken from the news agenda. Scrutiny by the students of a clear evidence base in the form of a multi-media PowerPoint presentation with clear data, facts and figures is followed by a vote, either online or via a ballot box. When needed, fantastic organisations such as Full Fact generously help out with fact-checking to ensure a clear and unbiased evidence base.

Questions range from the philosophical (Can money buy happiness?: 53% said yes!) to the practical (Should the law require us to speak out if we see people dong wrong?: No! said a definitive 62%, sometimes taking in the unexpected (Can music change politics? Yes!, said a 54% majority).

Whatever the question, the feedback coming from teachers and schools is that young people are passionately engaged in debating the topic; listening to each other with respect; with careful examination of the evidence before coming to an informed and considered decision.

Emma Martin, Head of PSHE at Crossley Heath school, a large state secondary in Halifax, West Yorkshire says that she’s seen “a distinct change in the students” who “no longer come to a snap decision and are much more measured in their opinions”. Perhaps most tellingly, she talks about how their skills in debating and analysing have developed…and how the students have come to see that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.

Could good old-fashioned, debate, curated by teachers, inspired by a clear evidence base and allowing for a vote based on informed decision-making be a possible solution to identifying fake news?

It sounds a little simple.

But we have to start somewhere and sometimes, however complex the issues, it’s the simple things that work.


*    Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

** The Programme for International Student Assessment, a world-wide study undertaken by   the OECD of 15-year old school pupils’ scholastic performance in maths, science and reading


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