I want to share here the deep concern I have for the role of educational researchers and teachers in this burgeoning post-truth and fake news world.
Educators know that policy and practice should be informed by more than one kind of evidence. Educational research is not like medical research where if a drug is found to work it will usually keep working in that same way wherever it is used. When we find something that works in education we need to do detailed case studies, preferably conducted over time, to see its effects elsewhere with other teachers and in other classrooms. As I see it the era of post-truth that we are experiencing today risks undermining the important gains that have been made in education, in recognising and valuing knowledge from a number of different sources.
There is no disputing that fact checked journalism, admissible legal evidence and peer-reviewed scholarship must now compete for legitimacy amid multiple other forms of ‘evidence’. Knowledge is indeed powerful, even when it is based on weak evidence, or lies. This new contest over knowledge is perhaps better described by the term, post-fact politics, and the proliferation of lies as a deliberate political tool.
It is an era that holds profound consequences for all educators. We have the responsibility of educating a generation of students who are likely to be active members of online communities where post-fact politics and fake news abounds.
These new communities function like echo chambers. Most of us, teachers and parents included, are members of at least one. The views, people and news we like proliferates, while those we don’t want to hear are filtered out by our community on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media.
The issues are multiple and constantly changing as new ways of connecting online develop. How do educators engage in productive dialogue with members of these communities who are informed by post-fact ‘evidence’?
Educators are already addressing the issues in everyday-type classroom exchanges, such as a child who brings to school information found on the Internet that is untrue or misleading, or having a discussion with senior students about their concerns around the behaviour of the current United States President.
One way I see as obvious and attainable as an educator is a stronger public discussion about the values we teach, and the values we value, which are not necessarily the same thing. For example, compassion, like other important human values, although seemingly increasingly rare, has the potential to unite us in our common humanity. A drowned child washed up on a beach, another shell shocked and alone in the back of an ambulance, these seem to have been moments that cut through. They tapped a vein in a world fatigued by war, famine and poverty. Schools must be, and many already are, places where young people experience and practice such values.
Teachers have always had the opportunity to influence the lives and chances of young people. But I believe the values we teach in the post-fact world are more important than ever.
Those concerned with education, and a fair and equitable schooling system need to lead the way. Our diversity as scholars, policy makers and practitioners is our strength, not a weakness. We should be helping each other confront the issues by guarding against lies without forfeiting our ability to contest claims to truth.
Politicians should trust teachers to work together at the local level with parents to understand and address the needs of young people and provide resources to support local decision and collaboration.
Instead of admonishing each other for weak practice and evidence, educators need to recognise that the complex educational problems we face can’t be solved by a simplistic view of knowledge or science, or by political quick fixes.
Debra Hayes PhD is an Associate Professor in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. Her research investigates the unintended detrimental effects of schooling in contexts where there are high levels of poverty and difference. Her forthcoming co-authored book is titled: Literacy, Leading and Learning: Beyond Pedagogies of Poverty (Routledge)
If you want to read more:
Hayes, D. & Doherty, C. (2017) Valuing epistemic diversity in educational research: an agenda for improving research impact and initial teacher education, Australian Educational Researcher 44(2):123-139. doi:10.1007/s13384-016-0224-5
Latour, B. (2004) Why has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Inquiry 30: 225-248 (Winter)