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Teaching and Learning in a “Post-truth” World

Students must become thoughtful activists of Internet content
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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.

Thanks Andrew! I really like

Thanks Andrew! I really like your article and agreed with every word!

Thanks for sharing this

Thanks for sharing this beautiful piece, Andrew! I absolutely agree with your point of view. From my teaching experience, I see that when students are trying to find the original source of the information, it ends on wikipedia or second page of Google. In fact, with the appearance of social media and the emergence of new opportunities for learning, students are reading less and ignore to delve deeply into what they are learning. It remains to rely on teachers' professionalism. But still, the overall level of graduating students are now substantially lower from that it was 15-20 years ago.

With the movement toward

With the movement toward collaborative learning and collaborative inquiry in our classrooms, where the majority of the knowledge base is being built through constructivist learning activities, the best (and most responsible) thing we can do for our learners is foster their development of social media awareness, objectivity, and critical thinking skills.  Whether it is in an elementary, secondary, post-secondary, or organizational context, by not addressing these issues, we are devaluing the learning experience, and, in essence, promoting the academic value of subjective opinion in place of objective fact.  

Social media has leveraged

Social media has leveraged that emotional reaction to information, no matter if that is true or not, especially when it comes to politics. I was surprised to see many smart friends (graduated from top universities) sharing fake information during elections, without thinking twice!!

That shows how ideology is more powerful than intelligence.

Andrew, this resonates with

Andrew, this resonates with me to the core because I saw this trend in my students a few years ago and challenged their thinking about information and where they take it from.  The decisions of adults and teachers to use technology in disseminating information to young people or in coaching its use depends largely on their own beliefs on the use and gathering of information.  We all have philosophies that rule our behaviours and actions.  I'm fairly young, but in a room of my peers, I often stand out with the descenting opinion, not because I want to be difficult, but more often than not, the source of the information that fuels our conversation topics.  Not many people read print news anymore, and of those that read online articles, you'd be hard pressed to find any who have checked the facts in anything they have read, or employed the 'follow' button as a means to check if there has been retractions or corrections to their 'news'.

Our educarion systems have evolved from teacher centered information flow, an exploratory experience which often lacks basics in research techniques and the maturity in age and experience to explore the 'information' found in any kind of depth.

Yes there's more media

Yes there's more media everyday. You are bringing good threads.

Thank you for bringing these

Thank you for bringing these threads together. I believe that Media Literacy is the most important skill we can teach our students. In order to be media literate online, we must understand bias, filter bubbles, algorithms, and more. All of the issues that you have brought up are important and all are part of media literacy education. I wish that it was a more cross-curricular effort, but it often gets broken down into components ("digital literacy", "information literacy", "digital citizenship" etc) which do not address the full range of competencies needed to be truly literate in our world. The eight key concepts of media literacy are still the best entry points into unpacking these ideas (critical thinking) that I have come across.

Hey MIchelle,  I appreciate

Hey MIchelle, 

I appreciate the idea that media literacy can be a gateway to these conversations. I don't think that we do enough to explore the increasing amount of media encountered everyday. As in any curriculum area, one of the challenges lies in the depth of understanding that educators have about what is happening. It has to be more than another curriculum focus. As you suggest, a more integrated cross-curricular approach is important, if not essential. 

On another note, I think that some of the work being done on how our brain actually works is pretty significant. In addition to the work of Daniel Kahneman already mentioned, others are starting to appear. This appeared in the G & M over the weekend and points to the fact that, perhaps, that critical "feeling" may be just as important to critical "thinking". I haven't read James Crimmins' book, 7 Secrets of Persuasion, but it might be something that sheds some light on this conversation. 

I was also really moved by

I was also really moved by this article...seriously. Thank you very much for sharing and I hope to read others articles with this quality.


Andrew, this is such a

Andrew, this is such a complex issue, but an important one. I suspect that a great deal of the institutional and social mistrust that we experience today has to do with the rather commonplace bending, spinning and manipulation that seems to be part of so much of our organizational and personal lives. 

On the one hand, we have bold and brazen lying that suggests, "It's true until it's proven not to be true." I think of the automatic denial that will often accompany scandalous revelations about prominent people. 

On the other hand, there is the confidence with which people (and organizations) think and act from their particular perspective and view of the world. This, to me, is the more interesting exploration. Is there a way that we can parse or unpack our perspectives in order to get to a "truth" about things that have been intimately woven from the multitude of threads that make up our worldview. Tricky, but an important conversation, especially in social contexts where we declare that we are open to a variety of points of view!

And then there's the whole algorithm conversation. We know that the algorithms that impact much of our lives these days are "written" from a particular set of perspectives, if not biases. From insurance rates to employment and educational opportunities, algorithms are one more way of sorting the world, separating and streaming people–—all using a particular perspective of what is true. 

All this to say (I think) that the political "untruths" and blatant lies are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an exploration of the world of truth (and post-truth). 

But it is a key area of exploration for many reasons, not the least of which is the importance of regaining trust in a world that has become weary of being wary.

Thanks for opening this up!

I was really moved by your

I was really moved by your article - thank you for sharing.  I agree that there is a problem that must be addressed.  The classroom is, hands down, the best place to start to create a more critcal thinking future.  I think critically examining information sources is something that must be taught to students.  I also think that practicing collaboration to solve problems and move information forward is essential.  If we want students to critically understand the infinitely interconnected world and internet we need to teach them to critically particiapte with one another.