How do kids know what is ‘true’?

Thursday, 20 Oct 2022

The NSW Government is currently involving the many stakeholders in a review of the curriculum. One of the first questions principals have been asked is “What should the purpose of schooling be in the 21st century?”. I’d say one of the main purposes is going to be to make sense of information. To make sense of what truth is. Not to do so could truly undermine our societies. 

One of the great paradoxes of the times in which we live is that our leaders who are frequently – sometimes spectacularly – loose with facts are lauded by their supporters as being ‘authentic’, ‘straight talking’, even ‘honest’. What becomes evident is that for these people, ‘truth’ cannot be reduce to mere facts. 

We have heard the expression ‘alternative facts’, and the problem of how science itself has been questioned and doubted.   

The search for what is ‘truth’ is not confined to politics or science. More generally it is becoming harder in a world of massive data overload to determine what truth is. How do we construct our understanding of the world out of all of this? How do children navigate this dilemma when they research and read? How will children know what to believe regarding so many issues? We seem to rely on ‘truth’ almost every moment of every day and it's very ‘close’ to us. Yet it's difficult to define because as soon as you think you have it pinned down, some case or counterexample immediately shows deficiencies. At times it all becomes a bit Orwellian.

The wonderful thinker Yuval Harari wrote the following: 

"……….., in the 21st century we are flooded by enormous amounts of information, and even the censors don’t try to block it. Instead, they are busy spreading misinformation or distracting us with irrelevancies. If you live in some provincial Mexican town and you have a smartphone, you can spend many lifetimes just reading Wikipedia, watching TED talks, and taking free online courses. No government can hope to conceal all the information it doesn’t like. On the other hand, it is alarmingly easy to inundate the public with conflicting reports and red herrings. People all over the world are but a click away from the latest accounts of the bombardment of Aleppo or of melting ice caps in the Arctic, but there are so many contradictory accounts that it is hard to know what to believe. Besides, countless other things are just a click away, making it difficult to focus, and when politics or science look too complicated it is tempting to switch to funny cat videos, celebrity gossip or porn.

In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

In truth, this has been the ideal of western liberal education for centuries, but up till now even many western schools have been rather slack in fulfilling it. Teachers allowed themselves to focus on shoving data while encouraging pupils “to think for themselves”. Due to their fear of authoritarianism, liberal schools had a particular horror of grand narratives. They assumed that as long as we give students lots of data and a modicum of freedom, the students will create their own picture of the world, and even if this generation fails to synthesise all the data into a coherent and meaningful story of the world, there will be plenty of time to construct a good synthesis in the future. We have now run out of time. The decisions we will take in the next few decades will shape the future of life itself, and we can take these decisions based only on our present world view. If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random."

(You can read his whole article here )

It makes quite sobering reading and yet Harari is right, it is not just a matter of determining what is true or half true but making sense of all the information. I am starting to believe that the one area in our lives that is not governed in any way, shape or form, has no restrictions of substance is the internet. Perhaps we need to think about this. Perhaps we also need to give high priority to teaching kids about ‘misinformation’, what propaganda is; what opinion is; what information is being manipulated?; and by whom and for what purpose?; what is written by bots?; what is meant by ‘alternative facts’? etc.  Going beyond the who and what to believe will be critical. In my view, knowing how to sift through the mass of information and develop a coherent sense of the world will be one of the main purposes of education in the 21st century.


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