Several years ago at parents evening, a parent demanded I explain what use a history GCSE was and what job their child would do with it when they left school. My answers did not go down very well.
I told the parent, who was not warming to me anyway, that learning history would help their child navigate a complex world through the use of critical thinking and this was essentially invaluable. Indignant, the parent marched on to see the maths teacher for a better answer. It struck me as odd then that a subject that aims to empower young people to think for themselves should be seen as an irrelevance. However, given recent events and the new information landscape we find ourselves in, I believe that history teaching has become a more urgent and essential task than at any other time in the life of the profession.
Our normal duty is to help young people examine the past, evaluate evidence, develop judgements and question the views of others and all these disciplines are threatened by a tsunami of misinformation that is available to students via a thumbswipe on a mobile phone. This is something they didn't cover in my PGCE and the threat that fake news poses to pedagogy and learning in all disciplines will never be discussed in the staffroom, by OFSTED or in inset days. We cannot wait for a head of department, head teacher or a government minister to insulate our learners from disingenuous, misleading and dishonest information online, instead we must organise to fight it head on.
The internet has and will continue to transform our world in amazing and often disruptive ways, but it is currently being used on the lowest level by angry and fearful people to present opinion as fact, and at the highest level as means of misleading entire populations. It is in this manner that pupils and adults unwittingly give their power to vested interests who are dedicated to working against the very people they mislead. Is it the role of a history teacher to tell people what to think? Certainly not. But if the subject should do anything at all, it should give them the skills to think for themselves and to resist those that might deliberately mislead, a thinking self defence class if you will. Often, this is controversial stuff in schools that are beholden to league tables and OFSTED and frightened that to much intellectual curiosity might undermine the core role of the school: appeasing education secretaries.
History teachers who are worried about the opinions and views their pupils have combed from the internet and which are regurgitated in the classroom in discussion must be confident in one thing: at the moment if you want to do something about this, you're on your own. This is why I wrote this article, for teachers (and anyone else who wants to get involved because this will be a long, hard struggle), we need to organise ourselves to best help our pupils to sift fact from fiction. The transformative power of the internet is such that teachers of any discipline no longer have the luxury of retreating to the classroom and closing the door. The internet pervades the classroom and the learners, meaning that accurate and fabricated knowledge beyond the teacher's control is the silent presence in our pedagogy.
I am not proposing some form of info-luddism, far from it. We need to use the tools at our disposal to make the case ever more for critical thinking, skepticism, analysis and judgement. I am starting to organise with other history teachers the best way to research the problem, plan our response and then act, but here's a few ideas for starters. Firstly, don't shield learners from misinformation, give them the skills to examine and dispose of it. Secondly spotlight the misinformers and do it publicly. Thirdly shout loud and proud (at parents evenings if necessary), that your job is to help thinkers think more clearly because at the end of the day, that will serve them better than anything else you can do in the classroom.
If you want to join me, get in touch and let's get started.