It is difficult to have not noticed that the Presidential Election in the United States of America has been somewhat controversial. The same conclusion can be drawn about ‘Brexit’. The implications of these events will keep historians, political analysts and indeed educators busy for many years. Regardless of your political leanings there are genuine implications for educators in these events and a considered response now and in the coming months (even years) will be required.
The short term challenge will be in helping our students to understand the events that have occurred. While the media views such historic moments as a bonanza for audience engagement our students are often left bewildered and confused by events outside of their control. Debate, argument, powerful claims for and against wildly differing views bring confusion and our students look to the adults in their lives for answers. In these moments our roles can be confusing and we may find it difficult to respond with honesty, impartiality and respect for underlying social norms and conventions. We are challenged by demands on our moral compass; not wanting to be bystanders to events and actions we find disturbing while recognising the political sensitivities of the times and diverse views which we will encounter within the communities of our schools.
As we face these challenges and times of seemingly rapid change we should seek comfort in the structures which underlie our society. The principles of democracy, balanced power, law and the rights that these systems ascribe to individuals and groups. These are not the first challenges our nations have faced, nor will they be the last. The foundations of our democratic systems have endured and continue to serve our needs. This should be the message we send to our students as we seek to reassure them. 2016 is not the end of the world as we know it, just a bump along the way.
Beyond the immediate care we offer to our students is the wider response that times such as this remind us of the need for. How do we make sense of the world in which we live? How do we make decisions based on considered analysis of evidence and how do we know which evidence to trust and which to be sceptical of? In times of change and turmoil our ‘sense-making’ abilities are challenged and the typical patterns we use to manage issues of lesser importance do not serve us well. As David Perkins of Harvard says ‘we have impoverished models for thinking and thus we need to learn how to think' and so as teachers we need to teach our students how to think.
What the recent events show is that the way we access and share information has changed. Mass media and journalism has been transformed by social media and citizenry journalism. We live with information overload but are confronted by questions of who to trust. Political agendas, advertising dollars, corruption, misinformation, and a constant pressure to be first to publish has created a scenario where facts and fiction merge. Given the complexity of finding real truth in this tangled web is it any surprise that we seek to simplify our choices to false dichotomies and abdicate our decision making responsibility to others.
How might educators respond to these challenges? Hopefully not with answers or platitudes but with questions and provocations that demand our students think and make grounded decisions with what they know. Our classrooms should be places for thoughtful reflection, for discussion, questioning and the unhindered expression of ideas. In our company students should find sanctuaries of safety, mutual respect, empathy and love. Through what we name and value we build a culture of thinking in which all manner of wonderings can be explored and students learn the skills they will require to make sense of a world that can at times seem dark and confronting.
This is not a political issue. It is not about one side of a debate versus the other, it is about the sort of people we want our children to become. Empathy, understanding, tolerance, respect and a questioning mind should never be confused with political beliefs but be cherished as the most fundamental properties of the highest ideals of humanity.
By Nigel Coutts