Teaching and Learning in a “Post-truth” World
One of the core tenets, perhaps the central belief of formal education, is that there is truth. Truth that can be learned, transferred and used to make decisions and solve problems. When William Butler Yeats wrote "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire" it is this idea of education, as the transmission of truth that he is commenting on.
Educators see this daily in their work with students that come to school wanting answers. And despite the increasing use of constructivist teaching methods such as Inquiry Learning, education is still essentially the pursuit of truth. We encourage students to find their own understanding, but implicit in that is the belief that there are answers to be found, answers that matter and that endure.
However, there’s considerable evidence that the importance of truth is declining and that it may have already outlived its usefulness for many. We need only consider recent events across the world to realize that we are living in a "Post-Truth" world.
Post-Truth is the belief that facts no longer matter. That what is proven is not relevant, and what really matters are the emotional reactions to information, not whether the information is true. The term “Post-Truth” was first used by David Roberts in 2010 when he described the extreme polarization of US politics as “Post-Truth Politics”. Over the past six years many others have also come to the conclusion that increasingly, truth doesn’t matter.
There are many historical examples of commonly held beliefs that have little basis in fact. Since the 1700's people have believed in the existence of a plot to control the world by the Bavarian Illuminati. McCarthy's communist witch hunt, the belief in a flat earth, assertions that the Apollo Moon landings were faked and the conspiracy theory that the attacks of September 11th 2001 were an “inside job” are more modern examples of popular ideas which have no basis in fact, yet still endure.
What’s changed recently, however, is the degree to which ideas which have little basis in fact have become commonly accepted and even come to occupy a central role in important public debates and decisions. How did this happen?
There’s considerable evidence that, contrary to conventional wisdom, people do not naturally seek truth. Rather than gathering facts and forming opinions based on evidence, most people form opinions and then accept or reject facts based on whether they confirm their beliefs. The Information Age has provided an endless stream of information that people now use to confirm whatever they believe. Rather than ushering in a new enlightenment, more information has led to greater ignorance.
A second factor is the existence of filter bubbles. Eli Pariser first explained how search algorithms use personal information (e.g. location, past click behaviour, search history, etc.) to shape what information is provided to users. This means that a search is likely to provide results that confirm what you already believe, even if what you believe is wrong. We "...become separated from information that disagrees with our viewpoints, effectively isolating us in our own cultural or ideological bubbles". Because of filter bubbles people see radically different information from the same search terms.
What makes filter bubbles especially dangerous is that they’re invisible to users. People don’t realize that what they’re seeing on Facebook or Google has been selected to confirm their beliefs. They think they’re seeing the world as it is. As a result, we become increasingly isolated in an "information bubble" where we never encounter contrary or dissenting information.
There is no better current example of the shift to a Post-Truth world than the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the victory of the Leave Campaign in the UK Brexit referendum. In both examples, prominent public figures repeatedly made false statements that were repeatedly proven not to be true, and it didn't matter at all. People no longer appear to be interested in truth. When UK politician Michael Gove claimed “people in this country have had enough of experts”, he was announcing the ascendancy of the Post-Truth era.
What this means for educators depends a lot on what you believe about the role of schools. Are schools a mechanism by which we prepare students for the future, or are they more, a way we can remake society and improve the world?
Currently, most educators seem to be walking their students into a Post-Truth future. Schools embrace the role of filter bubbles and the democratization of expertise, teaching students that using Google is an essential 21st Century Competency and encouraging the use of social media as a trusted source of information.
If, however, we believe truth is important, we must formally and explicitly begin to teach students about the digital world they are entering. All citizens need to be aware about the role algorithms play in what they read on their screens, and there’s no better group to start this with than students.
Students must better understand that the technologies they use are not "magic", but are created by people who, like all of us, have inbuilt and often unconscious biases. When we use these technologies these biases colour what we see, how we see it and the devices we use transmit the underlying assumptions they're built on. There can be no better and more relevant example of this than the way black players experienced Pokemon Go in sharp contrast to white players’ experience.
We also need to start helping students understand the value of a free and independent media. When Donald Trump lies to his nation it is journalists who hold him to account and inform citizens that he is lying. This is the critical role of a free and independent media. Not providing information as quickly as possible, but to act as gatekeepers of truth, to informs us when our leaders lie.
Students must become thoughtful activists of Internet content. Algorithms are built on user behaviour, so if we change our behaviour we can change what we see.
We need to show and require students to use a variety of different sources. Googling something or searching Wikipedia isn't enough. We have easy access to more sources than ever, but students use a narrowing range of research in their learning. It's time to broaden that. Students should be required to present both sides of an issue using multiple sources that they synthesize into a common viewpoint.
As the shockwaves of the Brexit decision, and the possible election of Donald Trump have shown, the implications of post-truth decision making are costly for all of us. We need to re-build the infrastructure that puts truth at the centre of our public and private decision making. And this must begin today, in our classrooms.