Whither Truth…or…Wither Truth
Whither def: to what place or state
Wither def: (to cause) to become weak and dry and decay
In an era renowned for fake news, alternative truths and echo chambers, we have to be concerned about the state and perceived value of truth, especially given that our social structures were built on the virtues of truth, honesty and integrity as foundations. For them to remain essential (they must), let’s consider the role of our schools can play to undo the erosion we see all around us.
For educators, that is no small challenge. Along with engaging in a Transformation Agenda and a renewed curriculum based on Big Ideas, we need to guide young learners to navigate 21 century complexities through lenses of curiosity and deep exploration rather than through a “post-truth” narrative so evident politics, business and relationships.
We know that young learners deserve better than to be captured by a social-media environment that promotes diatribe over dialogue and excuses over responsibility. The role of the school is essential in helping learners break away from echo chambers that sensationalize, polarize and marginalize. Our kids are ready to embrace the challenge. We see that every day as their perspectives grow and their voices and social conscience become stronger.
To create a classroom environment where we can thoughtfully explore complex truths, schools can’t insulate themselves and isolate students from the pre-packaged (no thought required) 24/7 digital content driven by our search engines. Such content is easily digestible, but it isn’t healthy or nourishing. School has to be a place where complex issues are illuminated and values-rich discussions are the norm.
For that to happen responsibly, schools are developing ways, right now, for kids to consider a range of perspectives and separate facts from opinions so they can engage in intelligent dialogue rather than be swayed by the bullying rancour that dominates our bandwidth. Every learner needs to be able to engage in thoughtful and deep discourse around difficult topics. S/he needs to skilfully navigate sensitive and polarizing issues, with the support of teachers who are able to establish and maintain respectful environment.
For “tomorrow’s leaders…” to have the capacities to take on that role, it is essential that they have scaffolded experiences exploring and unpacking complex, awkward and sensitive social, environmental, political and other issues long before they walk across the stage and receive their diploma. If we fail at that, it is at our peril.
It’s not a simple task and it calls for a radical shift from the safe and controversy-averse stance that communities have traditionally expected their schools to adopt.
In a simpler time, curriculum guidelines and requirements were focused on transmitting facts and processes - knowledge content - from the learned to the learner. Teachers’ primary role was to instruct, starting with basic skills and progressing into more complex applications and variations of those skills.
Educators were cautioned about bringing controversial, polarizing subjects into the classroom. The teacher in a lumber industry town might have been wise to shy away from exploring a range of perspectives related to environmentalism and protection of natural forests. The classroom in a town where there have been racial tensions may have avoided topics associated with race relations rather than risk inflaming parent and community pushback. Similar sensitivities would be in place for topics like oil pipelines among others.
However, that was then, this is now. Cocooning our children, particularly as they develop awareness and analytical skills through the intermediate and high school years isn’t responsible. We don’t provide our students good service if we isolate and insulate them from multi-dimensional issues when they are already being relentlessly exposed to such matters in an unfiltered and un-moderated way through their social media and other channels.
Timid, issue-avoidant classroom themes won’t help learners to develop the necessary capacities to navigate a rapidly changing world with its many complex dilemmas. Teachers need the tools and the encouragement & support from their districts and their communities to create learning experiences so that our kids can be curious and seek clarity about important matters.
The words of the late American politician and statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan help to sum up our challenge. He said:
“You are entitled to your (own) opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
Our job is to ensure that learners develop the required sophistication to understand the underpinnings of opinions and to be able to confirm or challenge what is being represented as fact. It’s an important task.