Will your pupils become the vegetarian generation?

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In March, the VotesforSchools community voted on whether or not they would consider becoming a vegetarian in the future. Over 7,000 of our 4-19 year olds voted online and the results are worth digging into.

According to Public Health England, 2% of both adults (19+) and children (1.5-18) reported they were vegetarian in a survey in 2012. That figure appears to have been relatively stable from the early 2000s through to 2012 (government surveys have been conducted regularly from 2000-2012 with dependable sample sizes and consistent approaches to testing).

And yet, newspapers and interest groups have declared a tidal wave of vegetarianism currently sweeping through the UK. In February of this year, the BBC reported a notable increase in people consuming vegetarian meals with an increase of 15% in sales of vegetarian ready meals between 2017 and 2017 and an increase of 16% in sales of Quorn, a meat substitute.

While it is wise to be sceptical of predictions about a vegatarian revolution, our recent voting results hint at the possibility that this diet could well increase significantly as our young people grow up.

10% of college students (16+), 23% of secondary students (11-18) and 43% of primary students (4-11) that voted said they would at some point become a vegetarian. While there are ambiguities about whether this indicates a permanent change to vegetarianism or simply trying out a new diet, the data demonstrates an increasing willingness to consider a vegetarian lifestyle.

The downwards trend from 43% of yes’s to 10%, could either suggest that as young people in the UK age, they have a tendency to prefer meatier diets. Or it could suggest that the youngest generation is currently the most open to vegetarianism maybe due to parents and teachers talking or advocating about the idea.

Unfortunately, we do not have the means to find out whether, through some odd aging process, our meat-eating instincts do not kick-in until later life, or whether our children are becoming more and more likely to turn into vegetarians. But the stable 2% of vegetarians in 2012 for adults and children alike, might indicate that the latter theory could be more likely.

Either way, we are continuing to gain new and interesting insights from our young people. We will return to vegetarianism within the year and across a few votes, we hope to learn whether we are looking at a vegetarian future.

 

Looking to address extremism? Let young people speak up

Extremism, radicalisation, terrorism & hate crime… Let’s talk about it, let’s open the conversation with young people across the country and let’s make them part of the solution and the change we want to see.

Having spent many years as a secondary school teacher, privileged to work with young people day-in-day-out, I realised very quickly that most of the answers to any of society’s problems were found in the wisdom of young people. So fast forward a few years and here I am about to facilitate a workshop on extremism with 100 14-year-olds & 5 extremism experts… hoping that by opening the conversation with young people we might get an insight into what they think and feel about radicalisation, hate crime and ultimately how to solve it.

Two years ago, I co-founded VotesforSchools to support my friends and peers (other teachers) to be able to host a debate about tricky issues. Having been a form tutor, I had seen first hand the moment something has happened over the weekend in the news and YOU must be the person who can provide all the information, give the advice and know everything there is to know on the subject. Quite a harrowing thought for anyone, especially if it conflicts with your own beliefs or is a subject that makes you want to crawl under a rock and hide! This (combined with seeing first hand how much a child’s behaviour can change the moment they feel empowered) was the moment we combined the 2 concepts – let’s provide content for teachers and a voice for young people. Let’s get them having a meaningful conversation and then try and capture that information and give it to people who make decisions and develop policy.

Debating extremism and asking young people if they can understand why someone might be vulnerable to becoming radicalised was one of our more direct questions. (Most of our topics tend to be less ‘full on’ e.g. ‘Will Blue Planet 2 convince people to use less plastic?’). Through a weekly debate, we are helping young people to become thoughtful, tolerant, open minded and knowledgeable. The students we worked with on the live debate have been doing VotesforSchools for 2 years, so are so well skilled at listening and debating and developing an informed decision.

Bringing the debate to life was easy – I have never come across such an amazing group of people all working alongside the Government’s Prevent agenda who were so keen to come and talk to children about their experiences, what they have learnt and to find out what it is like on the ground for teenagers in the here and now. We set the scene with carousel workshops and a chance for them to see small groups in a more intimate setting before brining everyone together for a Dimbleby-style question time.

This is where the anxiety really kicked in…. were they going to ask any questions?! Not wanting to create a ‘fake’ environment myself and Turing House Deputy Head Martin O’Sullivan decide to go with the flow and fingers crossed they would not be intimidated by the guests or the sheer amount of their peers in the hall! Well lesson number 27 of the day…. Never underestimate teenagers, they couldn’t stop asking questions! The students demonstrated a huge appetite for finding out information and getting to the nitty gritty.

These teenagers’ desire for wanting to discuss, debate and question what is happening in the world they live in was as obvious as the day is long… not talking about controversial issues or engaging them in moral dilemmas isn’t going to make it all go away, in fact quite the opposite. Open debates with all young people will help us all find the solutions to today’s problems, and whilst we may not be able to solve UK-wide extremism with 100 14-year-olds at Turing House School we can help them to understand why it exists, why many people seek belonging in sometimes the wrong way and this in turns builds tolerance and understanding. One year 9 boy captured this when he said during a session… “we are all vulnerable to extremism, and I mean any extreme behaviour like drugs or gangs, not just religious or political extremism” and for a second I realised that their desire to understand the causes and be a part of the solution was just genius.

So… debating extremism, opening up the conversation… was it worth it? Well according to deputy head Martin O’Sullivan, it was, speaking after the event he said, “it was the highlight of my career and in terms of educational outcomes it was gold”.

When we think of Prevent we think of online training for staff and reporting students for language or extreme opinions, now I am not saying this is wrong, not at all, but I think the a large part of the solution lies with teachers who can be equipped with good content to facilitate moral and ethical dilemmas with confidence and without prior knowledge. Then the young people we are so keen to educate holistically can become rehearsed at having a critical eye on the world and can discuss and debate the issues and then be the solution. When you have 1 child in a classroom somewhere in the UK who, after discussing extremism decides not to discriminate against someone who lives down the street – that’s a success in my opinion.

So, here’s the end point summed up by Sophie who at 14 years old offers  “we can and are capable of having a voice and when people in government want to speak to us we can tell them what we know, the different sides of the argument and what we should do about it. Adults can’t tell us how we should think and be, they should find out and work with us, let us be empowered to be the solution” Sophie year 9 student.

Teachers have been doing incredible work with young people and hearing their voices forever. This debate was reported in the Evening Standard .

Balancing order and sensitivity: where to make exceptions with school uniform

Last week students debated whether they should be exempt from uniform rules if the policies conflicted with their beliefs. The debate was inspired by a recent news story about a Rastafarian boy being sent home for having dreadlocks. The issue proved to be a pertinent one, with another news story appearing in the week about an 8-year-old boy being sent home for wearing a religious bangle.

My teaching tenure has left me with a conundrum when it comes to making exceptions to the school uniform policy. I still remember the events of Tuesday 6th September 2011, the first day of my teaching career. Hordes of students descended on the school gates, fresh from a summer break and reluctant to do anything that constituted learning. The principal and deputy head stood at the entrance and vetted every single student following the implementation of a new uniform policy.

In a morning full of difficult confrontations, around 100 students were sent home on their first day of school. This was due to the new uniform policy being extremely strict. It was designed to tackle the significantly challenging pupil behaviour faced by the school in the previous academic year.

To the principal’s chagrin, the mass rejection of so many students made headlines in the local newspapers and even featured in a national paper. (Editors could not resist sticking the downtrodden expression of a naive year 7 on the frontpage). While common culprits with baggy trousers, absent ties and short skirts (not all one outfit) were deservedly sent home, there were unlucky new starters caught up in the mix. Many had bought the wrong type of shoes or trousers simply by mistake. I can only imagine how distressing being turned away on day 1 of secondary school must be.

However! The approach was a welcome turnaround from unsuccessful and lazy attempts to change bad behaviour in previous years at the school. The uniform policy proved to be a vital tool in cracking down on disrespect in the school.

Were I the Principal on said Tuesday morning and a student appeared who had worn what looked like Jewellery or had a non-conforming hair style, I am sure I could have easily turned them away at the gates. I would have been guilty of being insensitive to religious beliefs held by a student. A principal at such a difficult school might have thought that giving exceptions for one set of religious beliefs would have been the start of hundreds of professions to faith, like an odd, mass teenage baptism. The next day they might be confronted with 100 Jedis who insisted on wearing cloaks.

In my view, teachers might well have difficulty in making exceptions for students’ beliefs. But this is much less a question of morals and more of practicality. I can empathise with members of staff who have to deal with difficult behaviour and rely on clear rules to keep the peace.

A solution? There can be a solution in a school where students’ beliefs are supported and yet order is maintained. I would think, the school uniform policy could be adapted to include a disclaimer whereby items/apparel of religious importance can be permitted in specific circumstances and without undermining the strict set of rules that have to be adhered to.

The specific circumstances would have to be clear, involving a discussion with parents and the student about their specific beliefs and agreeing a policy for the future. This agreement would have to be shared with staff, possibly with a list of students that have specific uniform exemptions. This might seem like overkill, however clarity is vital for schools that rely on strict rules and these are the schools that often end up in the spotlight with these types of issues.

While this solution has been carefully considered, there are flaws in it. Requesting parents to come to school specifically and having a list of students with exemptions might make those students feel single-out to some extent. It also might mean the student endures a brief period of being prevented from wearing an item or coming to school. There might be better solutions out there. With an understanding set of staff who have good control of their school, these situations can hopefully be dealt with immediately via a dollop of common sense.

The results of our vote were conclusive with 77.8% of secondary students voting that they should be able to refuse to comply with a school uniform if it conflicts with their beliefs.

At the same time, the fact that 22.2% of young people think you should submit to uniform rules even if it conflicts with your beliefs is perhaps just as interesting. In my time as a teacher, I never met a student who would defend our strict uniform rules. Yet here we have a notable proportion of young people who, when given the chance to undermine uniform, have decided to support it even if it suppresses the beliefs of others/themselves.

Here is a wonderful quote from one of our voters to finish:

‘Very interesting topic. In today’s society, if someone believes something, their opinion should be respected…. someone could have a religious belief which contradicts uniform policy, but this can surely be worked around rather than just bluntly refused. An intriguing question as there are many variables in this situation. I was very surprised by the current results.’ Anonymous voter, Sutton Coldfield Grammar School for Girls

An awkward approach to winterville and the egg hunt holiday

If the Prime Minister pores scorn on a corporation, I would expect it to be due to tax avoidance, awful working conditions, or the mistreatment of customers. I suppose I might also think that it could be the result of a negative/prejudiced advertising campaign. I would not though assume that she had taken the time to speak out over the name change of a holiday egg hunt. And yet, at the beginning of this month, I witnessed Theresa May describe Cadburys’ decision to change the name of its National Trust trails (dropping the word ‘Easter’ from Cadbury Easter Egg Hunts) as ‘absolutely ridiculous’.

These religious-correctness debates have popped up semi-regularly in recent years. Every time winter rolls around it seems that one can find an article of how the word ‘Christmas’ is being dropped from public celebrations or that nativities are being squeezed out of the school calendar. While being sensitive to different religious views, it feels like no one has quite worked out the best way to combine religious sensitivity with respect and recognition for the messages/beliefs at the heart of festivals that many are a part of. With a likely mix of faiths and backgrounds between pupils, schools are a useful microcosm for reflecting on this struggle.

As a teacher/school leader, it is difficult to balance enthusiasm and the tradition of a festival like Christmas with the concern and outright objection from parents that they do not want their children to be forced to partake in a religious practice that they do not believe in. We have come along way in ensuring that children are not coerced by any state institution to accept specific religious doctrines. Yet one could argue that comprehensive schools find themselves now in an odd middle ground whereby they sometimes risk picking out the parts of religion that they think students will be happy with e.g. giving presents at Christmas, while leaving out the central beliefs that deserve to be recognised.

The solution?

While this might sound over-simplistic, I think the solution lies in giving the decision over to the students themselves. As the VotesforSchools team has seen frequently, passing decision-making responsibility over to students not only engages them in the topic, but also helps to build long term reasoning skills.

In practical terms, school leaders could launch a school-wide debate on whether the school should recognise and do something to recognise all religious festivals from the six biggest global religions (the exact wording can be fiddled with and it could be relevant for the school to focus on a specific religion). The debate would have to be an informed one, with students given a session in the week to learn about different festivals and the views/values they uphold. This could be extended to parents by encouraging students to take the debate home and discuss it with them. It would be best to have a letter sent home to parents so that they can be included in the open discussion and allow them to raise any potential issues. Once all the students have had some education and discussion on the idea, a whole school vote could be carried out.

In giving the say on recognition of religious festivals over to young people, I can see this voting exercise having four clear, positive effects:

  1. It validates the school’s approach towards what can be a tricky issue. By having a transparent vote on whether the school should recognise religious festivals and acting on whichever side the verdict falls upon, it will sidestep the potential criticism and grief from parents who were not happy with the school policy
  2. It hands over the decision-making responsibility to students on an issue that is much more significant than whether or not they should have an extra ping-pong table, or whether they should be allowed pizza once a week. Student councils and student-oriented democracy can often feel and genuinely be tokenistic. A vote on what is a serious and important issue like religion is the opposite of that. It will demonstrate to young people that teachers/adults take their views seriously and that they can have an impact
  3. For point 1, many teachers will have likely been thinking that some parents could still make this issue a difficult one. That is true. However, having a vote Though parents might still not be content with a school following the students’ vote, they would be given the chance during the process to talk to the school in a more progressive way where the school is in a position to take parents’ views on and do something with them. It can include them in the debate
  4. Finally, in engaging in a debate about religious practices, students will have the opportunity to learn more about religion in general and about each other. This (again if monitored in a sensitive way) will be a chance for students to discuss their views with each other and learn more about each other

I recognise that a religious debate in a school will never be easy, especially if there are strong views running through sections of the community. However, if chaired and implemented in a sensitive and structured way, students could be empowered, parents could become more engaged and the community become more cohesive. A school that has a positive debate about religion could be the standard bearer for dealing with religious differences in the community and wider area.

Tackling fake news in schools

Andreas Schleicher, Education Director of the OECD* made headline news this week when he called for schools to teach young people how to identify ‘fake news’.

His focus is on teenagers, and he urged them to look beyond the social media ‘echo chamber’ where only views which broadly reflect existing opinion are relayed back.

The spotlight on ‘fake news’ isn’t entirely new: back in 2013 Tim Cook, Chief Executive of Apple said that “there has to be a massive campaign” against misinformation and digital propaganda, adding that “it has to be ingrained in the schools.”

But there’s been something of a perfect storm recently, with tumultuous political events concentrating the mind on the issue.  Donald Trump has been hitting the headlines by calling out ‘fake’ news stories that don’t support his point of view. Equally, the fall-out from the Brexit vote, where both Leave and Remain campaigns were accused of being less than honest about the facts, left many voters confused about the objective evidence base on both sides of the argument.

With an increasing public understanding about the power of alternative sources of online news media, which often use content produced by its own consumers rather than journalists, it’s not difficult to understand why Mr Schleicher is highlighting this issue.

Not many people would disagree with him that “distinguishing what is true from what is not true is a critical judgement”. Clearly, the ability to assess an evidence base in order to reach as informed a decision as possible, is a crucial skill, and one which impacts all spheres of life: politics, relationships, health and work.

Nor would many disagree with his move to introduce written questions on “global competency” in the influential Pisa tests** scheduled for 2018. These are aimed at assessing the capacity of young people to see the world through different perspectives and to establish if they are sufficiently open to new cultures and thinking. In short, says Mr Schleicher, the extent to which they are being prepared and are “ready for a diverse and interconnected world”.

But the real question: is how do we, as a society, help young people develop these vital, yet difficult-to-capture skills of being open-minded; willing to listen and to acknowledge views that are not our own? And, deeply connected, how do we hone the ability to distinguish what is true from what is fake?

Once again, teachers are right there on the front line, being called on to deal with an issue which is complex and closely linked with the powerful social media news feeds which are growing in their reach, with the power to heavily influence the teenagers who avidly consume them.

This news is easy-to-access because of social media channels, its low cost and, often, high visual appeal. But, if the algorithms are playing back already deeply held views and opinions, what is at stake, is the ability to acknowledge cultural diversity and an exchange of ideas leading to preparation for life in an interconnected world, where diversity and difference of opinion is celebrated.

So far, it’s looking a little disheartening.

But, although clearly at a much more grass roots level than the heady-heights, global level of Apple’s Tim Cook or the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, the comments coming back from grass-roots teachers tell a slightly different story.

VotesForSchools runs a voting platform for young people, with a weekly vote on a topical issue, with the question taken from the news agenda. Scrutiny by the students of a clear evidence base in the form of a multi-media PowerPoint presentation with clear data, facts and figures is followed by a vote, either online or via a ballot box. When needed, fantastic organisations such as Full Fact generously help out with fact-checking to ensure a clear and unbiased evidence base.

Questions range from the philosophical (Can money buy happiness?: 53% said yes!) to the practical (Should the law require us to speak out if we see people dong wrong?: No! said a definitive 62%, sometimes taking in the unexpected (Can music change politics? Yes!, said a 54% majority).

Whatever the question, the feedback coming from teachers and schools is that young people are passionately engaged in debating the topic; listening to each other with respect; with careful examination of the evidence before coming to an informed and considered decision.

Emma Martin, Head of PSHE at Crossley Heath school, a large state secondary in Halifax, West Yorkshire says that she’s seen “a distinct change in the students” who “no longer come to a snap decision and are much more measured in their opinions”. Perhaps most tellingly, she talks about how their skills in debating and analysing have developed…and how the students have come to see that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.

Could good old-fashioned, debate, curated by teachers, inspired by a clear evidence base and allowing for a vote based on informed decision-making be a possible solution to identifying fake news?

It sounds a little simple.

But we have to start somewhere and sometimes, however complex the issues, it’s the simple things that work.

 

*    Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

** The Programme for International Student Assessment, a world-wide study undertaken by   the OECD of 15-year old school pupils’ scholastic performance in maths, science and reading

The key to an inclusive debate

‘Every year the UK is looking to improve, but we can only do that if we work together.’1

On Tuesday 3rd January we launched a debate on whether the UK will become more united in 2017. As the start of the year tends to be an optimistic time, with ambitious resolutions still on track and renewed energy from the Christmas holidays, I expected our students have a positive outlook. I assumed that young people might believe 2017 had the potential to be a year of integration and restoration. Maybe had a naïve bias based on some mix of patriotism and the belief that Britain was a compassionate and tolerant country.

2017 result

The results were decisive. 79% of our students voted to say that the UK will in fact become more divided this year. I was shocked, believing that young people tended to be more optimistic and might see the chance to create positive change in the future. However, with Indyref2 announced this week, their gloomy forecast might be spot on. The UK will become formally more divided if its constituent nations decide to split off from one another. First Brexit, now Scexit, between now and 2020 my nationality might have changed from British to English to Yorkshire-ish, with Leeds as my capital city and the Yorkshire pudding my national dish.

It is not controversial to suggest that referendums can be divisive. Hate crime leaped up 41% in the month following Brexit2. The pound has depreciated in value by over 15% since the result3. Tabloid headlines have been published that fuel anger and opposition rather than calm debate. Politicians even moved towards sharper, negative messages that left us to choose between what looked like economic destruction or unsustainable immigration troubles.

However, if my work at VotesforSchools has taught me anything, it is that political debate does not have to divide us. In fact, it should be the basis for the exact opposite result – a discussion whereby we can learn to understand each other better and form a closer-knit community. We have had feedback from students saying that they never understood the opposite side of the debate until their lesson on it, that they are thinking about things in a new way and that they have changed their minds on different ideas.

All this comes from a positive and open approach and stems from a single, clear idea that we encourage at VotesforSchools: that you should not assume the reason that someone has a different position to you is because they are ignorant and therefore wrong. We all come from different backgrounds and have had a set of unique experiences which have shaped our political perspectives. We are all human and hold our political positions because we think they are best for our society and our world.

So in every VotesforSchools debate we give the two sides to each argument the attention and respect they deserve. In doing so we encourage students to try and understand one another than simply argue against. We try to encourage them to learn more about different opinions to their own and discuss these in a calm and considerate way. Through this, we have seen students learn far more about politics, about their own opinions and about the ideas of others during our programme.

The opening quote is not from a recent parliamentary speech nor a broadsheet headline, but rather from a secondary student at one of our schools. It is not an implicit argument for Scotland to stay in the UK. It is, rather, the idea that debates and referendums should be an opportunity for us to work together. It sounds counter-intuitive that two sides with different arguments should work with each other, however it is necessary in order to have a political debate which does not split our society like Brexit has done.

So let us open up to indyref2 and see it as an opportunity to hold a referendum which brings out the best in people rather than the worst. Let us encourage the debate and be eager to understand what those around us think on the topic and why. Knock on your neighbour’s door, talk to the lady with the placard in the street, ask your friends and family – not with the intention of convincing them that you hold the correct position, but instead to understand them and grow closer together, whatever the outcome.

 

References

  1. VotesforSchools Database
  2. The Guardian article, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/13/hate-crimes-eu-referendum-home-office-figures-confirm
  3. Quora financial analysis, 2016, https://www.quora.com/How-much-did-the-British-Pound-devalue-since-Brexit

Worrying political trends and how they don’t exist

This week you might have heard about a couple of by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland. Though the Stoke election was massively over-shadowed in national news by the VotesforSchools launch of its primary programme in the very same city, the elections drew more attention from users than normal.

Since Brexit and Donald Trump, there has been a great deal of talk about nationalism overcoming globalisation and bold announcements of the end of liberalism. The trouble with these grandiose statements, is that in an attempt to grab headlines they can completely undermine what is really happening.

Take both Brexit and the US election. Donald’s Trump rise was declared as the US public turning their backs on the rest of the world and putting America first. A wave of anxiety and small mindedness so powerful that it was able to overcome blatant sexism and xenophobia. Though the amount of support for Donald Trump is both troubling and something that needs to be addressed, it is not the signal of some unrelenting political wave. It is dangerous to think in terms of trends to often in politics. If you do in this case you might end up believing that the tide of xenophobia will sweep the country moulding the whole population into far-right racists. And you miss the facts. You miss that Donald Trump lost the popular vote, that the marches for women around the world had more attendees than the inauguration and that progressive causes have seen a huge upswing in donations since the election (1).

Tabloid papers have also stoked the fires of Brexit-related isolationism and anti-immigrant sentiments. I have had countless discussions with friends about the UK becoming an intolerant, unfriendly place to live. They can hardly be blamed given some of the recent political rhetoric behind the ‘hard Brexit’ and the rise in hate crime since the summer of 2016 (2). Yet fears about Britain’s steady decline into an aggressive, individualistic nation are unfounded. The Stoke by election was an example of how thinking in terms of momentum and trends in politics is often misleading. Despite 72% of the Stoke population voting to Leave the EU and despite labour being led by a left-wing londoner, Gareth Snell succeeded in retaining the labour seat with relative ease in terms of the difference in votes.

It is worth bearing in mind that our political system is relatively immature. The UK has had a participative democracy in the form we are used to today for around 80 years. A minute spell in our human history. The US has had its system for slightly longer, but still no time at all when compared to our human timeline. So when political shifts take place it is worth noting that setting new trends is not only possible but likely. While we might try to compare this term under the Conservatives to the Thatcherite era or Donald Trump to Fascist leaders, the likelihood is that both will take us somewhere completely new that we will have to learn from.

That is why, despite my initial joke, I do believe the launch of our primary school VotesforSchools programme was more important than either of the by elections. We are teaching young people how to engage with democracy and building the skills that they need to make informed decisions. In keeping with the idea of launching into the unknown; with more and more young people receiving a better education in the realm of politics, I am looking forward to the wholly new political reality in 10 years’ time.

 

(1) The Guardian, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/25/progressive-donations-us-election-planned-parenthood-aclu

(2) Independent, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-vote-hate-crime-rise-100-per-cent-england-wales-police-figures-new-racism-eu-a7580516.html

Dispelling your students’ and your own pre-conceived ideas

In the last 20 years, has extreme poverty almost doubled, has it stayed the same or has it halved?

On Tuesday 7th February, the world lost a unique and talented educator. You might not have heard about it. In fact, I doubt that many people noticed any press coverage – the BBC obituary only hung around on the ‘most read’ list for a couple of hours at number 101. However, the loss of Hans Rosling is a sizeable one to the international and educator community. He dedicated himself to dispelling pre-conceived ideas and generally held ignorance about health and poverty and managed to make millions of people more knowledgeable and more positive about the world around them.

This blog is directly inspired by Hans’ speeches and presentations about pre-conceived ideas. Essentially, he began most of his talks by drawing attention to our commonly-held mistaken beliefs about basic global facts. These beliefs tend to stem from negative press reports, politicians’ rhetoric, and individual prejudices. In Hans’ and Ola’s words, these beliefs come from ‘personal bias’, ‘news bias’, and from ‘outdated facts’2. Though our own experiences and news exposure lead to unique thoughts and ideas, some of these beliefs/rules are fairly universal across most western societies; we tend to think the world is getting gradually worse; that global catastrophes are more likely than they are; and that there is a huge gap between the rich and poor.

The reason these beliefs are such a problem is that they mean that we make much worse decisions than random at answering important questions. Let’s take the opening question. If you had guessed that extreme poverty has doubled in the past 20 years, you would be entirely incorrect. Poverty has in fact almost halved. Yet when asked this question only 5% of the American adult public answered correctly3. This is far worse than just guessing (which would lead to 33% of the public getting the answer right). This demonstrates that the beliefs we have in our head, irrational and ill-formed, prevent us from making correct decisions.

Now let’s apply this to the political realm of the UK. Take Brexit for example. In March of 2016, Nigel Farage made a series of statements emphasising that if we remained as part of the EU we could be at greater threat of a terrorist attack. Whether or not this is true, these statements played on the inaccurate pre-conceived belief that you or I are in real danger of being a victim of a terrorist catastrophe. In fact, there are far fewer terrorist casualties in Western Europe now than in the 1970s and 1980s4. We are far more likely to fall victim to a road accident or die of a heart attack from over-eating. This is not a partisan illustration on the side of the Remain camp, it is instead it is designed to show that our pre-conceptions can lead to misguided judgments if they are allowed to influence our political decisions. As teachers, our job should be to help dispel these irrational concepts.

Moving to the classroom (I can hear a sigh of relief from the remaining readers who were sufficiently patient to wade through political meanderings), addressing pre-conceived misjudgements is at the heart of SMSC teaching. Yet it is rarely directly addressed. Here are three brief but practical tips for targeting widely-held pre-conceptions.

  • Challenge you own pre-conceptions

I once walked-in on a tutorial time where a teacher was telling their form how in the developing world, most girls did not receive an education. This was entirely incorrect. The global average for years in education is now nearly equal across genders. Yet through their own pre-conceptions, that teacher encouraged their class to think negatively about education for women in developing countries (admittedly, in a minority of countries girls receive less of an education but this should not be the basis of generalisation). It is vital as wise-beings who students come to for knowledge, that teachers ensure they do not hold misguided beliefs. An easy way of challenging your own views is to look at what is actually going on, the Gapminder site is ideal for this.

  • Give your students one easy question per week to broaden their horizons

Admittedly, working with students to dissect prejudices and ill-informed assumptions is a time-consuming task. However, it can be broken down into chunks. Instead of devoting hours to this idea, you can instead tackle one assumption at a time, once a week, for five minutes. Using one question per week from this resource, you can challenge one assumption at a time. In addition, you can do the same with your own subject-specific content to challenge this. For example you could start a Maths lesson by challenging the idea that boys are better at Maths than girls – GCSE results show that the two genders are exactly level, yet interestingly, more boys go on to study Maths in higher education.

  • Replace an assembly with this video

Finally, an especially easy tip. This exceptional programme contains an overview of global health and poverty and is a great starting point for students who want to move past their pre-conceptions. This can be supplemented by the Ola Rosling Ted Talk on ‘How not to be ignorant about the world’. The content is simple enough for KS4 students to understand.

Hans Rosling’s overall message to his audience was that the world is getting better and we should be mindful of that. He implored listeners to see past the negativity in press headlines and the narrow-sighted and poorly-evidenced stories that encourage society to think the best days are behind us. He was an optimistic and a fact-driven educator, a person for which there is great demand at this time. We should carry on his example and bring up our students to trust data and statistics rather than their own prejudices and experiences.

The students of today hold the fate of our future leaders in their hands. It is vitally important that they understand the data and views they should consider before making political decisions. We need an electorate that is well aware of its own ignorance and seeks truth before voting rather than reassurance in an echo-chamber of misguided opinion. The responsibility for this hangs heavily on busy teachers’ shoulders. However, with simple, practical exercises, they can make a start at achieving this goal.

 

References

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-38900572
  2. Hans and Ola Rosling, 2014, https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world
  3. Hans and Ola Rosling, 2014, https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world
  4. Datagraver, 2016, http://www.datagraver.com/case/people-killed-by-terrorism-per-year-in-western-europe-1970-2015

Dealing with controversial issues in the classroom

Many jobs demand multiple skills. But the skills teachers and SLT have to pull out of the bag in the course of an average day are, frankly, mind-boggling. Let’s have a go at listing them:, communication, negotiation, wisdom, humour, patience, target-setting, motivation, managing a budget, all overlayered by the need for specialist subject knowledge.

The list could go on.

All these skills, plus more, are needed when dealing with the inevitable, controversial issues that teachers will either actively bring up in Tutor time, or during a Citizenship or SMSC lesson or will spontaneously face.

So, with huge doses of humility and acknowledgement of the vast scope and nature of the subject, I’ve had a go at bringing together the advice of experienced teachers, together with some useful insights from The Citizenship Foundation, to look at just how controversial classroom issues can be tackled.

  1. Establishing an evidence base

The greater the ability of the pupil or student to think for themselves, rather than repeating ready-made, inherited views that they haven’t always interrogated, the more likely it is that they will be able to address controversial issues effectively. Weighing up the evidence, choosing between alternative view points, questioning the source of the facts being presented are all powerful ways of encouraging a student to interrogate their own views . Using quality SMSC resources with facts, figures and reliably referenced sources helps enormously, grounding the view in helpful objectivity and inviting positive self-questioning.

  1. There are two sides to every story

Empathy is key to a more harmonious discussion when there are vastly varying views.  It’s a quality that can’t easily be taught, but can be modelled. By asking the class to divide into pairs and take the opposite view to the one they instinctively held on first facing an issue, students will be challenged to think hard about the counter-arguments. The result should be more natural empathy with a viewpoint to which they were initially opposed.

  1. It’s OK to disagree!

It’s important to acknowledge that there will be disagreements around views and it’s not accurate or helpful to communicate that there is consensus around certain issues. Accepting that there are opposing opinions about certain aspects of current affairs and history is part of democratic practice and it’s good for students to recognise this. Teacher experience suggests that it can be actively helpful for children and young people to clearly understand that adults don’t always agree on issues; that they are very few absolutes when it comes to certain opinions. The key is to make an important differentiation between an established fact-base, which draws on independent and reliable sources and individual interpretation which is then drawn from this evidence. If a pupil understands the basic, but vital lesson that opinions aren’t facts, that is a huge win in itself.

  1. It’s complicated!

So, building on this, it’s important for children and young people to understand that issues can be hugely nuanced and complicated. It’s not always realistic to believe you can come to a swift opinion with the closed thinking that can come with it. Often there are no simple answers to the most controversial issues. Sounds obvious? Maybe, but it’s really helpful to acknowledge and clearly communicate that rather than encouraging learners to settle for easy ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions.

  1. Try using a filter

If the subject area is particularly tricky, it can sometimes be        helpful to try choosing a topic from the news agenda through which it can be addressed. A recent topic on our weekly voting platform asked: “Should parents be allowed to drop off their children at the school gate wearing pyjamas?” following a Head’s banning order on sleepwear at drop-off time. Through this ‘safe’ filter, a discussion on the issues around multiple dress codes within the school community and in society becomes more approachable. An examination of  whether “Politicians should communicate more through Twitter?” allows for a cool-headed assessment of Donald Trump’s blasting through the political norms, and more of an evidence base on which to judge a figure who courts controversy with every tweet.

So, back to that list we started out with.

There’s one more skill to add: the ability to equip young people with the vital tools they need to tackle the vast array of issues they will face in a world that seems to be getting more complex day by day.

5 tried-and-tested ways to get girls to speak out in class

The benefits of encouraging girls to talk clearly, confidently and with the expectation of being listened to, have implications way beyond the classroom. Only 5.5% of women in the UK hold the top job in FTSE 100 companies, and business is a sphere where clear, confident articulation of a view and the ability to get a message across is key to success.

 

While not all women and girls are aiming for these heady heights, it is fair to say that the ability to communicate clearly and confidently is one key aspect of success in all walks of life and in virtually all careers. It also comes in useful in everyday life whether it’s getting a message across to the doctor about the need for medical care or speaking out in front of a group to support something you care passionately about in your local community.

 

It’s a tricky area to talk about and we all have to be mindful of not falling into the trap of gender stereotyping, and some of what I’m saying equally applies to boys who are reluctant to speak out. Having said that, a lot of what follows is based on what I’ve learnt from a wholly inspirational, female PSHE teacher who is brilliant at inspiring girls with the confidence to speak out. This is her experience talking, and with a proven track record of encouraging girls to be confident, articulate and willing to contribute to a discussion, I’m listening and learning.

 

I’m also drawing on information and insights from The Girls’ Day School Trust report on Effective Pedagogy for Girls’ Learning (2016) which has very helpful insights and ‘coal-face’ experience into girls’ learning styles, honed over many years.

 

So, with thanks to that inspirational female teacher and to the GDST, here are some tips that might just help you encourage the girls in your classroom to speak out:

 

  1. A structured, classroom debate is a great place to get girls contributing to the conversation. And I’m not talking about the sort of debate where you are asking for volunteers to support or oppose a motion, which can be too scary to engage with and always attracts the same few people. I’m thinking, rather, of a bite-sized exploration on a topic, which allows whole-class contribution. Choose a topical issue which inspires maximum engagement, and you’ll be doing everything possible to make sure you have equal contributions from both boys and girls.

 

  1. Girls often seem to be more willing to speak out in smaller groups. Try running the debate during Tutor Time where there are fewer people. For those girls who are really lacking in confidence, try paired discussions, brining in contribution when there is more engagement.

 

  1. With girls often observed as being unwilling to indulge in any conflict or disagreement, particularly with other girls, it’s worthwhile teaching them that an element of open-minded, healthy disagreement isn’t the end of the world and can lead to quality exchange of views. It’s OK to disagree! Try encouraging use of expressions which ‘capture’ the disagreement such as “The evidence suggests something different to what you’re saying…”, or direct non-confrontational statements: “I’m not clear on what you’re saying: what are you basing the evidence for your argument on?”

 

  1. Get the talk, the views and the exchange flowing as naturally as possible. Using a carefully put-together resource to inform the debate, with facts, figures and snippets of information, encourages girls to confidently contribute and feel less intimidated having to pull-out a ready-made view which they then have to support. An evidence-base is a great support and start-point.

 

  1. The UK educational system often models a right-or-wrong answer where careful preparation and rote learning can be rewarded over originality of thinking and considered risk-taking. In later life, business often rewards the latter. Use the debate as a forum where girls can safely take risks and understand that there isn’t always a right or wrong answer.  A Critical Thinking teacher quoted in the GDCT Report states: “Some girls are initially terrified, panic in extreme that they don’t have the ‘right’ answer, but I try to help them, systematically, logically, to move outside their comfort zone…it can be agonising for them.” Modelling in your own behaviour, teaching style and vocabulary that life is often nuanced, with many shades of grey between the black and the white, is a great way to encourage this risk-taking in girls.

 

Hope that’s helpful and, as ever, please share your comments!

 

I’ll leave you with a quote from Helen Fraser’s speech to the GDST Annual Conference 2016 to inspire us all:

 

“I want every girl to leave school not just with a clutch of As and A stars, if that is what they need, but more importantly to leave knowing that they have had a fantastic education, and that they have within themselves the courage, confidence, composure and commitment to be their own inner – and outer – cheerleaders.”