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20 Jan 2017

Three top tips to help your students learn to take an objective approach

Last October, I sat in a school in the North of England, not far from where I grew up, debating the use of mobile phones with a set of 13 year olds. While I hope not to give too much away about my age; this was not a debate that I ever had to have at secondary school. In those days, we instead debated how this novel thing called ‘the internet’ might someday allow us to communicate around the world and share small, pixelated images if we were lucky.

During the debate, we went through all the pros and cons of owning a mobile phone as a teenager and using it in school. The group decided in the end that mobile phones encouraged bullying and it would be better if people didn’t bring them in. One girl, Sarah read out the statistics about the rise of cyberbullying as they rounded off their discussions. Yet despite that, as she went to vote she told me she would vote to allow phones in the school. When I asked why, she simply shrugged and said she liked having her phone on her.

Objectivity is not a segmented skill which should be taught in PSHE lessons and then dragged out whenever there is a political debate. It is a vital cross-curricular facet which can enable students to excel at all their subjects. In a science lesson stepping back from opinions and assumptions will enable students to make more accurate hypotheses and apply more rigour in testing. An English student with a clear and open mind will be more likely to identify with the sentiments, thoughts and background of an author. Objectivity in ICT will encourage students to be open to new ideas for app features, or suggestions for how to improve how a system functions.

With that in mind, I have come up with three top tips to help teachers encourage these skills to develop without having to dedicate a great deal of time or planning to it. These are not even close to exhaustive, they are simply practical steps to encourage objectivity in the classroom.

Top Tip 1) Making the ridiculous a reality

This activity can be as simple and off-the-wall as you like. It can also be employed in any subject at any level. Subjectivity comes from countless assumptions which encourage us to think that what our beliefs and opinions are likely to be correct. “I am right in thinking that footballers earn too much money because I’ve seen pictures of Ronaldo driving around in a Ferrari”. One way of challenging these hidden assumptions is by asking students to write an argument for a ridiculous idea and to keep going until it starts to become plausible. Take a common subjective idea your pupils have e.g. footballers having too much money, and flip it round. Ask them instead to come up with a clear argument for why footballers don’t have enough money and should be paid more. Asking students to consider a question like this will not only help them become more objective, it will also help them to have a better understanding of that topic. It also only takes 10 minutes.

Top Tip 2) Practice empathy with opposite views

This skill centres around being able to pull your own interests and feelings out of a situation. A useful way to illustrate this is to show students examples of people being highly subjective. Newspaper headlines, politicians’ speeches and social media feeds can all provide accessible examples of people being subjective. For a quick, five-minute activity, take a headline, an excerpt from a speech or a tweet and ask students to analyse whether the person who made it was being objective or not. Then ask them to try and edit it so that it shows no bias or assumptions. This can be done in Geography via a discussion about climate change, for example.

Top Tip 3) Repetition, repetition and uh… repetition

Even those who pride themselves on being analytical and fact-driven must regularly to scrub the bias from their brains. Objectivity does not snap into place; students need to be reminded constantly when they are applying bias to a judgment. The best way to ensure that students are aware of their own assumptions and are able to step clear of them when they prepare for or participate in debates, is to have regular, weekly exercises where they need to shake any bias from their heads. Applying either of the above two tips once a week should do the trick.

Helping students to become more objective is a task implicitly given to teachers, but one that should be explicit. Analysing facts without them being clouded by one’s own thoughts is a vital process for young people to learn so that they can approach debates correctly, study effectively and apply themselves in jobs. Developing this skill at the very least might lead to less phones in schools, which (is possibly?) a good thing.

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