06 Dec 2019

Alex Hems: Head's Blog December 6 2019

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Seeing Clearly in a 'post-truth' World 

How do we help young people to identify fake news, in a world of memes, misinformation and in which ‘deep faking’ is becoming a serious security concern? This was the question put to us at the recent GSA Heads’ Conference, the title of which was 2020 Vision. The Editor of the Times Educational Supplement challenged us all, as educated, thinking adults, for not pushing back more forcefully at the idea of a ‘post truth world’.

Apparently primary school children are twice as likely to be able to identify fake news as secondary students. I was intrigued by this statistic. Are younger children less inhibited about asking questions and challenging what they see in front of them? How has the education system failed our older children if it has not helped them to be discerning and critical readers and viewers? How do we ensure that the instinct for truth is preserved and fine-tuned so that the next generation is better equipped to find their way through life with clear sight and critical faculties intact? News is now far more widely accessed through mobile phones than it is through television, especially by young people. Social media brings them news as well as entertainment, but of course, because the owner of the phone or other device can choose who they follow, it is more likely that the commentary that they read will accord with their existing point of view, rather than challenging them to consider another angle – the so-called ‘echo chamber’ which can of course be a very comfortable place in which to exist. Good, responsible journalism costs money and is time-consuming; it will only survive, in print or on-line via subscription, if consumers are willing to pay for it, and are willing to give the time that is needed digest what are often, rather worryingly referred to now as ‘longer reads’. When, I wonder did 10 to 15 minutes of reading become a long read?

We all, as adults, parents and educators, have a responsibility to model this critical, evaluative behaviour, and to talk about it with our children and students. As a school we also take this responsibility very seriously. We know, however, that we also have to acknowledge the primacy of digital media in the daily lives of young people. You will have all seen the SchoolPost sent on Wednesday from Mr Andrew Leask, Head of English and e-Learning Coordinator, in which he summarises the array of digital learning resources that are available to the girls, not only at school, but also from home. Our Library pages, which your daughter can reach via this link will give her access to Britannica, the online encyclopaedia, to The Day which is a daily news digest aimed at school students and Issues Online, an excellent database. I hope you might find it interesting to browse these resources with your daughters and discuss how they could be used in their work. I do not believe that anything should or could replace the experience of human interaction with an inspiring teacher who is sharing their passion for a subject, but there is no doubt that the opportunities that technology offers to a skilled teacher to enhance learning in so many creative ways are very exciting.

Critical thinking, the weighing of evidence, construction and deconstruction of arguments are all part of girls’ learning at school. The Higher Project Qualification, which we offer alongside GCSEs in Lower and Upper 5, requires them to undertake their own research and independent thinking, and therefore helps to develop their analytical and evaluative skills. The challenge lies in helping them to see the transferability of these skills to the way in which they digest social media. We also want them to appreciate what a wealth of opportunity exists for young people who are appropriately equipped to take on roles in creative technologies. We are delighted that we were able to enter two teams for the UK Space Design competition a few weeks ago, one of which won and will now compete in the final in London next year. The recent success of girls in the TCS Oxford Computing Challenge programme is very encouraging; we now teach computational thinking from Junior School upwards, embedding the thinking skills that will equip them for the workplace of the future.

I have every faith in the ability of the coming generations to be discerning readers of social media and news, but the onus is on all of us to uphold the values of integrity and honesty, to ‘push back’ where we see these being eroded, and to show courage in owning the truth in our own lives.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh

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