How educators might work in the fake news world

By Debra Hayes

I want to share here the deep concern I have for the role of educational researchers and teachers in this burgeoning post-truth and fake news world.

Educators know that policy and practice should be informed by more than one kind of evidence. Educational research is not like medical research where if a drug is found to work it will usually keep working in that same way wherever it is used. When we find something that works in education we need to do detailed case studies, preferably conducted over time, to see its effects elsewhere with other teachers and in other classrooms. As I see it the era of post-truth that we are experiencing today risks undermining the important gains that have been made in education, in recognising and valuing knowledge from a number of different sources.

There is no disputing that fact checked journalism, admissible legal evidence and peer-reviewed scholarship must now compete for legitimacy amid multiple other forms of ‘evidence’. Knowledge is indeed powerful, even when it is based on weak evidence, or lies. This new contest over knowledge is perhaps better described by the term, post-fact politics, and the proliferation of lies as a deliberate political tool.

It is an era that holds profound consequences for all educators. We have the responsibility of educating a generation of students who are likely to be active members of online communities where post-fact politics and fake news abounds.

These new communities function like echo chambers. Most of us, teachers and parents included, are members of at least one. The views, people and news we like proliferates, while those we don’t want to hear are filtered out by our community on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media.

The issues are multiple and constantly changing as new ways of connecting online develop. How do educators engage in productive dialogue with members of these communities who are informed by post-fact ‘evidence’?

Educators are already addressing the issues in everyday-type classroom exchanges, such as a child who brings to school information found on the Internet that is untrue or misleading, or having a discussion with senior students about their concerns around the behaviour of the current United States President.

One way I see as obvious and attainable as an educator is a stronger public discussion about the values we teach, and the values we value, which are not necessarily the same thing. For example, compassion, like other important human values, although seemingly increasingly rare, has the potential to unite us in our common humanity. A drowned child washed up on a beach, another shell shocked and alone in the back of an ambulance, these seem to have been moments that cut through. They tapped a vein in a world fatigued by war, famine and poverty. Schools must be, and many already are, places where young people experience and practice such values.

Teachers have always had the opportunity to influence the lives and chances of young people. But I believe the values we teach in the post-fact world are more important than ever.

Those concerned with education, and a fair and equitable schooling system need to lead the way. Our diversity as scholars, policy makers and practitioners is our strength, not a weakness. We should be helping each other confront the issues by guarding against lies without forfeiting our ability to contest claims to truth.

Politicians should trust teachers to work together at the local level with parents to understand and address the needs of young people and provide resources to support local decision and collaboration.

Instead of admonishing each other for weak practice and evidence, educators need to recognise that the complex educational problems we face can’t be solved by a simplistic view of knowledge or science, or by political quick fixes.


Debra Hayes PhD is an Associate Professor in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. Her research investigates the unintended detrimental effects of schooling in contexts where there are high levels of poverty and difference. Her forthcoming co-authored book is titled: Literacy, Leading and Learning: Beyond Pedagogies of Poverty (Routledge)


If you want to read more:

Hayes, D. & Doherty, C. (2017) Valuing epistemic diversity in educational research: an agenda for improving research impact and initial teacher education, Australian Educational Researcher 44(2):123-139. doi:10.1007/s13384-016-0224-5

Latour, B. (2004) Why has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Inquiry 30: 225-248 (Winter)

10 thoughts on “How educators might work in the fake news world

  1. Chester Draws says:

    For example, compassion, like other important human values, although seemingly increasingly rare,

    But only if you accept that others, who might have different political views, also share compassion.

    But the liberal end of education often want to believe that conservatives have no compassion. And conservatives often think liberals have no values at all.

    So, no, values doesn’t work in practice. It is often used as a cover for pushing specific values linked to specific political positions — and just makes the situation worse.

    As a classroom teacher, there is also the risk of severe conflict with students who do not agree with your values. Even ones you might think are universally shared. You’d have to abandon the whole “respect diversity” thing as a first before we could teach standard values in a class. I can’t see that flying.

  2. Deb Hayes says:

    Thanks for supporting ‘a stronger public discussion about the values we teach, and the values we value’. I think we can agree that compassion is a value that is not limited to a political view. Chester, the fact that you take up the challenge to teach means that you teach values, even when they are not explicitly stated. What values ARE reflected in your practice? Let’s not be cowed by fear of conflict into silence. Some values are worth ‘fighting’ for.

  3. AB says:

    Thanks for your thought-provoking blog, Deb. You have articulated many useful ideas about educators’ work as we navigate a world of ‘alt-facts’ and ‘fake news’.

  4. Deb Hayes says:

    Hi AB. There certainly is a proliferation of terms attempting to describe the contests that are taking place over knowledge – thanks for adding a couple more. It concerns me that the term ‘post-truth’, which also describes a well-established challenge to the assumption that only one form of reasoning is right has now been adopted as a marker for the abandonment of reason and the systematic analysis of evidence.

  5. Tornado says:

    Thanks for this relevant and timely comment. I know many educators (particularly primary school teachers) who are struggling with how to manage the ‘alternative facts’ emerging from ‘news’ (I hate to say fake, but especially biased sources). Many of the pieces that these students encounter include particularly misogynistic presentations of women, and xenophobic and islamophobic values. These are difficult conversations for educators to have when they have a wealth of time and resources. One of the problems seems to be that we still think education should be ‘value free’, when indeed there is no such thing. Everything we present in schools has some kind of value within it. What’s crucial now is to recognise those values and find some way of cutting out the insidious marginalisation of difference that these new discourses are introducing. Thanks for bringing this issue to the fore.

  6. Deb Hayes says:

    Thanks Tornado. I agree that valuing difference and diversity is increasingly difficult when some groups of people are singled out as a threat because of their beliefs or cultural backgrounds. Teachers and school leaders manage the effects of these changes in society and, for the most part, they ensure that schools are places where young people are accepted for who they are. Their contribution to knitting the fabric of our society is often overlooked.

  7. Thanks Deb for this great article. I was particularly interested in the comment about educators who are “already addressing the issues in everyday-type classroom exchanges, such as a child who brings to school information found on the Internet that is untrue or misleading”. It strikes me that teachers are trying to manage/redirect the ill-informed knowledge kids are gathering from the web. I’m interested in how we might “head this off at the pass”, so to speak, and empower kids to read online “knowledge” differently, more informedly, outside of school as well as in school. I have some ideas but it will be a big project…..!!

  8. Great article Deb. Thank you. I understand your point: “Educators are already addressing the issues in everyday-type classroom exchanges, such as a child who brings to school information found on the Internet that is untrue or misleading”.
    I wonder how we might deal with this both in and *out* of school where the teacher is not there to manage the effects. How can technology be used/devised to also dismantle the “fake news” and destructive values it presents in ways that kids want to engage with? I’m working on a project that aims to contribute to this but it will be a multi-faceted, prolonged endeavour!

  9. Deb Hayes says:

    Thanks for your comment Jen. I think you’ll agree that since young people have had access to the Internet in classrooms, teachers have been helping them to assess the quality of information that turns up in their search engines. It seemed a little more straightforward in the past (i.e., pre-2016 US presidential election) to distinguish between good sources and bad sources. Now, young people also need to understand knowledge as form of power, and to be able to read the political purposes to which knowledge may be put. How do we help a child understand what it means when elected democratic leaders attack as fake news what we have taught them to consider as reliable forms of evidence i.e., scientists and reputable news outlets? Hope your project helps with this question.

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