Why We Must Teach Our Children To Understand The Difference Between Fact And Opinion And The Role Of Experts

12/01/2017 13:47

'Post-truth' was deemed 2016's word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. It relates to or denotes 'circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion then appeals to emotion and personal belief', worryingly confirming a speak first, think later attitude which seems to be increasingly apparent, not just across social media, but from sources that purport to be the news as well. The notorious 'we send the EU £350 million a week' bus slogan was paraded as truth, but few, if any, were prepared to take responsibility for its claims, suggesting that it didn't matter whether or not what it was true; it was simply there, then not. Twitter insults have flown wildly. Opinion has been brandished as fact. We have been told that we are tired of experts.

If it's difficult for us to discern the difference between fact, opinion and outright mistruths, just think how hard it is for our children. They are constantly subjected to this and, given the impact of social media, more intensely than we were at their age. We may be as susceptible to it now, but we had childhoods in which we weren't subject to the same tsunami of (pseudo-)information. The internet is awash with fake news and, just as we are not constantly aware of what's happening right this moment ourselves, young people don't always instantly have someone to rely on who they can turn to when interpreting what they read and hear. We need experts to help them and to help us, and we need to teach our children the skills to one day become experts themselves.

As a teacher, I have to be an expert. I have to know what I'm talking about. Yes, I do have to be able to disseminate and reinforce information in a way that each of my students understands and, I hope, deliver that in a creative way so that my students feel inspired and empowered to do something with it, but the foundation for all that is that I have the information in the first place. In my field, I know there will always be more for me to learn, but to the best of my abilities, I want to be an expert and I'd be appalled with a system that didn't hold, as its ideal, that all teachers were.

We all need to be able to trust experts in their discipline. If I didn't trust my doctor, why would I go to him if I felt ill, and if I didn't consult him, then what would I do? Slowly deteriorate? I need to trust him. The same goes for experts in all kinds of professions. We must have faith in each person's ability to do their job and we should educate our children so they feel that way too.

But with that trust comes responsibility. As experts, we need to ensure that our expertise is accurate, precise and reliable. We must be accountable but we require investment too. Within education, robust professional development is key. To remain experts, we must continue to acquire knowledge. Broader financial difficulties weigh particularly heavily on such training but its importance shouldn't be understated. Innovation in how we approach professional development could see broader training by colleagues across schools and services or parents and carers offering their expertise in a particular area to staff. Most importantly, we need to recognise the value of responsibility as an enormous privilege.

This responsibility goes further than ourselves. Young people need to be taught how to recognise the difference between expertise and opinion. As teachers, parents and carers, we must ensure we clarify the difference between what we know and what we believe; between fact and opinion. It might seem obvious, but we need to cherish the fact and value the opinion.

The skill of being able to think critically is vital. Without it, young people's opportunities in the world beyond school could be disadvantaged. To do so effectively, the foundations upon which they build ideas and theories, problem solve and create, must be solid. Students trust us to impart knowledge. With that groundwork, students can work collaboratively to analyse the information they've been given, evaluate it, apply that knowledge effectively and share their findings. Such tasks, which encourage problem solving, can help engage students and motivate them.

Giving someone a voice and the opportunity to use it is just as motivating. To help create an environment in which we hope our children will thrive, we need to encourage them to participate, sometimes quietly, sometimes passionately; discussing openly and listening intently as each side presents opposing views. We want to better understand what we have and improve our future; that's how we start to change the world. I want my students to think it's possible for them to do that, that they have some sense of agency and responsibility, but to do so, they must learn both to trust expertise and how to think critically; to know the difference between fact and opinion.

Crucially, it's important to remind them that opinions aren't fixed. Nothing is static; ideas constantly evolve. They need to be taught that their opinions, and indeed they themselves, will change as they adapt to greater information available to them. Apathy won't help our young people progress. I want mine to be passionate but so too do I want them to have the tools to disseminate their opinions wisely. We may appear to be living in a post-truth world now, but it doesn't have to stay that way. We must encourage our young people to involve themselves in debate; to analyse, think critically and question us, but trust us too, safe in the knowledge that as we share our expertise with them, so they can become experts too.

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