OPINION PIECE by Elisa Resce, June 2018
While mainstream news media is mostly digestible, sometimes there is a headline so absurd that I have a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the importance of critical thinking to my Year Nine students.
This generation more than any other is absolutely inundated with information, but what to do with it? That is the real question. So, this lesson I tried something different. I set up the projector with a video clip and said to my class: “We’re pressing ‘pause’ on our normal lessons, because something important has happened in the news and I think we need to talk about it.”
And then I pressed play. You may have seen this clip from the Seven Network’s Sunrise program – I know it got a hell of a workout on social media. The clip, based on a (Melbourne) Herald Sun article titled “Ban the Books”, said that Victorian local councils were to ban the terms “boy” and “girl” from libraries and kindergartens, and in an effort to get rid of gender stereotyping, they would be getting rid of Barbie and Thomas the Tank Engine.
As my students watched it I watched them squirming in their seats. The clip ended and everyone wanted to talk at once. “Hold on,” I said to stop them. “If we’re going to talk about this properly it needs to be one at a time,” and immediately their hands shot up. No one was more shocked than me to see them politely waiting for others to speak before they added their opinions – not normal behaviour for a Thursday afternoon, so they clearly felt very passionately about this issue and wanted a chance to be heard.
So, what did they think of the news of the bans? Pretty much the same as everyone in the comments of Facebook and Twitter – though, all credit to them, with far less swearing and nastiness. “It’s going too far,” they said. “This decision is wrong.”
Finally I interrupted their orderly feedback. “There’s only one problem with this news story,” I told them. “It isn’t true.”
They stared at me for a while. “What do you mean it’s not true?” they asked.
“It’s not true,” I said. “You all have computers and phones, fact-check it.”
It only took a few moments before they reported finding articles such as No, Thomas the Tank Engine won’t be banned under Melbourne council gender guidelines on SBS, and Junkee’s Herald Sun got it wrong: no books or toys will be banned in Victoria.
My students felt duped, both by Sunrise and by me, but it was an effective lesson. One student was particularly struck though. “Why would they do this?” she kept asking. “What motivates them?”
“They get more viewers,” her classmates were able to identify, but she couldn’t let it go.
“But it isn’t true! And there are no consequences! OK, the other articles say they were wrong but it’s too late, the misinformation is out there because everyone’s seen it, and they get away with it! They get all this extra advertising and there’s no consequence at all!”
I felt optimistic, though. I can’t change the world, but I know my Year 9s left that lesson with a resolve to think twice before unquestioningly sharing a “news story” on social media and joining an outrage brigade.
Besides, the furore died down within a week – even though we know that community distrust continues. Why else would the public be so quick to believe the story, instead of choosing to look further? It’s because stories like these are a dime a dozen – accusing the government and/or education department of banning Christmas carols to avoid offending Muslims, accusing multiple groups of banning gender, and my personal favourite – accusing teachers of secretly pushing Marxist values in the classroom. These stories spread like wildfire, and they make me furious.
I may not be able to change the world, but I will use every platform I have to combat this tendency to believe headlines and form a panic mob. We need critical thinking, pause for thought, a considered decision to see a concerning headline and think: “Before I react, why don’t I look into this further and find out more?”
This type of media dishonesty is damaging. We want the public to engage with politics, but if the public are busy protesting against a made-up issue, they are too distracted to see the real issues that need desperate attention and action.
This dishonesty doesn’t just affect our young people. Just yesterday, I went to visit my elderly Italian grandmother. She doesn’t have a mobile phone, believes the internet is “the devil” (her words), and restricts her television watching to old Biblical epic movies like Ben Hur.
Still, as we sat at the dinner table, she told me that a neighbour from down the road had told her that the government says people aren’t allowed to use the words “mother” or “father” any more!
Heaven help us.