Older generations are quick to claim that youngsters aren’t interested in politics and oblivious to the news. In my experience, that isn’t true. They may not avidly watch news programmes or consume newspapers, but today’s generation are far more attuned to events than many parents and teachers give them credit for. Incidents like the recent school shootings in Florida and the Manchester terrorist attacks, or topics such as environmental degradation and transgender rights,tend to cut through, even if children don’t always articulate their concerns.
Unfortunately, teachers have become increasingly bad at letting students express their views on newsworthy events. When I was at school, it wasn’t uncommon for a teacher to spend ten minutes or so discussing a current event, if prompted by a student. In too many schools this is far less common now, even though we are ceaselessly bombarded with information from multiple media sources 24/7.
This is partly because curriculum and accountability pressures are intense and teachers believe they don’t have the time to digress. But it’s also because some teachers don’t feel it’s their job – or perhaps they lack the confidence – to deviate down current affairs rabbit holes. If a topical and contentious issue rears its head in class, it too often gets parked in PSHE lessons or ignored. Neither strategy is satisfactory.
I appreciate that many teachers are reluctant to discuss difficult topics because they do not want to be accused of foisting personal beliefs on students. Nor do they want to go so off-piste that the lesson has to be redone. Yet it isn’t a question of pushing one’s own views as much as facilitating debate and managing an emotive subject impartially. And on those occasions when teachers suspect that students are anxious about an issue, would ten or fifteen minutes debating it seriously sabotage the curriculum?
“When events intrude, we have a chance to puncture misconceptions, establish the facts and call out conspiracies. Ultimately, isn’t that what education is all about?”
Teachers obviously have to pick the right moment and strike the right balance. It’s clearly not appropriate to be alarmist or to initiate a discussion when there is no appetite for one. But where there is, I think it’s important that students are allowed to discuss the news for three reasons.
Firstly, there is a practical consideration. If students are seriously concerned by something, whether local or national news, teachers won’t be able to get their full attention unless they are allowed to air whatever is bothering them. Far better to get it out of the way at the beginning, even if it’s totally unconnected to the lesson.
Then there is the question of student wellbeing. Some incidents, particularly if they are lethal and children have been hurt in the process, resonate in the playground more than others. Many students in the UK will have heard of the school shootings in the US or the recent spate of knife related deaths in London. They may not always articulate their fears – or know how to articulate them – but that doesn’t mean they are not concerned.
It cannot be healthy for children to bottle up this anxiety. It’s far better if they are able to express their fears in a short discussion. It may be tempting to shunt the issue off into an assembly, but teachers should trust their instincts and deal with it immediately if they suspect it is bubbling away under the surface. If students want to sound off about homelessness, melting ice caps or terrorist outrages before they tackle algebra or Spanish, let them.
The final reason we should allow students to talk about the news is just as important. Children are subject to an avalanche of fake news. Rumours masquerade as news reports, assertions are misrepresented as facts, and photoshopped images purport to be records of reality. Our children are exposed to an information overload but we are not allowing them to decant it in any meaningful way. Yet, as educators, isn’t that our responsibility?
How can we claim to give children a well-rounded education if we aren’t teaching them to distinguish between fact and opinion, between reputable and disreputable sources, between real events and fake news? When events intrude, we have a chance to puncture misconceptions, establish the facts and call out conspiracies. Ultimately, isn’t that what education is all about? As teachers we should embrace that opportunity not avoid it.
Danuta Tomasz is assistant director of education, Europe for Cognita, which has some 70 schools in the UK and abroad.