Late last year – in the wake of Brexit and the US Election – the Oxford English Dictionary chose 'post-truth' as its word of the year. In a world saturated with burgeoning amounts of information, of claims and counter-claims, truths and counter-truths, the job of educating our children to give them a balanced and objective understanding of the world has just become that much harder.
Within days, a leading columnist in The Guardian, Tim Lott, wrote a fascinating piece about the frustration he felt when one of his daughters picked up a story online which she argued was being actively suppressed by the mainstream media. Every effort he made to reason with her failed. She remained convinced that there was an international media conspiracy to suppress uncomfortable facts, and no argument could dissuade her from thinking otherwise.
Living in 'fact bubbles' and cherry-picking data to fit in with our own beliefs is part of the unfortunate paradox that comes with an explosion in the amount of knowledge available – currently estimated to be doubling every thirteen months – when contrasted with the shrinking store of knowledge that is actually trusted. For parents and for educators, this represents a considerable challenge.
At a time where facts are less important in shaping public opinion than emotion and personal belief, we are compelled to look at the way we are teaching. The question about what is being taught has been overtaken by an even more important debate: how do we best teach children the skills of discrimination and critical thought so they know what to trust and what to treat with caution. We must strive to give children the ability to discriminate between sources of information. We must encourage them to make a habit of questioning precisely who tells us something and why and who they represent (country, political point of view etc). For in today's world, they need to be able to identify which facts are actually facts, and what is contested knowledge.
We live in a world where 63% of adults now get their news from social media. In a recent survey, 82% polled could not distinguish between a news story on a website and a sponsored content post. We might know, instinctively, to question what we read, but we should also be aware of the lure of memory and looking critically at what we see and hear – or what we choose to remember.
Most adults would profess to know something about children and education because we were all young once. Yet what we remember, often prompted by old photographs, is a selective picture of childhood, our own 'truths'. We often forget what it is like to feel small and unnoticed and the difficult years spent growing up. We simplify our response, wanting children to learn what we learned, using the methods we used, because they are recognisable and safe. We remember what we want to remember, rather than the fact that life has moved on and we shouldn't close down our childrens' world by imposing our own constraints and prejudices about jobs, subjects and teachers, or faiths and cultures.
The challenge for schools is to help pupils differentiate between fact and opinion and to identify bias. Children must be curious and ask questions; they need to be encouraged to understand the vested interests of the media and politicians (and textbooks and media) and to see the world in all its shades of meaning. They need to see conflicting views and opinions in a positive light, full of interest and richness, and invariably they will need help in order to navigate their way.
Inevitably, we trust less what we cannot see, but with so much more indiscriminate 'information' out there, the store of trusted knowledge is actually diminishing. The responsibility of schools is to teach children not to believe all the arguments and 'truths' encountered on social media (or elsewhere) and to learn the appropriate skills to cope. The problem is not new, only significantly greater and more pressing than ever before. Democracy is founded on a political system that encourages debate and counter-argument, the presentation of 'two truths', as we saw with Brexit. And it has always been thus, to a greater or lesser degree.
Instead of railing against the uncertainties posed by too much knowledge, we should remember that the history textbooks used in British schools until comparatively recently came almost exclusively from a group of white, male, academic historians – just as earlier in our history it was the Church, with all its partiality for right and wrong, good and bad, that gave us our 'history'. However difficult it may be to untangle the 'truth' from today's array of views, opinions and national histories, at least we have more information to work from – we just need to get children asking the right questions. Only by engendering curiosity and enquiry can we safe-guard their future.
Although 'post-truth' was the OED's word of the year, it is not surprising that 'chatbot' was among those shortlisted. As artificial intelligence begins to take over lots of basic transactions in our lives – telephone banking, booking tickets, confirming a reservation – we will be talking to a computer and not a human. This is just the beginning, of course. As we enter an AI world, the need to encourage discussion and debate with our children becomes ever more critical. It may be one small, yet significant, way of ensuring there is still something that our children can trust in a world running short on certainty.