What Matters is: Fake News and Media Education

by Becky Parry.

There’s a whoop of excitement which travels around the class like wild fire. The teacher has just shown his class of year five children a photo of a UFO which was ‘seen’ by another staff member the night before. The photo is fictional, as is the sighting; it is part of a simulated news production activity.  The children are on their second day of producing a news programme and their excitement is not generated by the idea that a teacher has seen a UFO, nor is it disbelief; they are excited because one child has just worked out that they can use the story as news. Throughout the room the children’s voices announce: ‘it’s news’, ‘we can use it as news.’ They look for confirmation from their teacher who affirms and then they cheer.

This memorable moment took place during the, ESRC funded, ‘Developing Media Literacy’ research project led by the Institute of Education UCL, which focused on learning progression in media education. What might we expect children of different ages to be capable of understanding about media and how might we expect their learning to develop? Working with two specialist Media Arts schools in the UK, and their feeder primary schools, we undertook a sequence of learning activities in collaboration with teachers that enabled us to teach key Media Studies concepts, right across the age range. There will be those who voice concerns about the rationale of a programme of media education for primary aged children. It is often assumed these sorts of experiences are superficial and they don’t reflect what really happens in the news-room. However, internationally, media educators recognise the increasing need for media or digital literacy which enables young people to navigate, what Jenkins (2006) describes as the ‘new global participatory culture’. In this activity, focused on news, we aimed to address what Jenkins call the ethics challenge, that is to say:

The Participation Gap — the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow.

The Transparency Problem — The challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world.

The Ethics Challenge — The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants.

(Jenkins 2006 p.3)

During this week of news production simulation the children took on the roles of reporters, as well as accountants, advertisers and regulators. A cost was attached to all activities – for resources (laptops, stationery), training and going out to do interviews all involved the children spending ‘money’. The task was to produce a radio news bulletin for their target audience and to make a profit. For a primary class this may seem an unnecessarily complex simulation, but it enabled the children to occupy roles well outside their own experience. In doing so they encountered a series of ethical dilemmas and had to make what Jenkin’s describes as ‘Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.’ They also had to learn to engage with ‘Simulation – the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of the real-world.’ (Jenkins 2006 p.4)

They had to balance the pursuit of truth and accuracy with an economic imperative and they had a strict deadline.

In role, as news gatherers encountering the UFO story, the children were excited by what they recognised as bigger than those they had come up with so far which either copied national news or resembled a school newsletter. At this point they did not worry about the veracity of the story – they had a strong ability to suspend disbelief. However, they were also developing an explicit understanding of magnitude as a criteria for news gathering, experiencing ‘in role’ the same feeling a journalist might have when a ‘big’ story breaks.

Later on I encountered Matthew who was upset. Having been checked by the two regulators, the news story he had written was found to be inaccurate. He was covered a story about a child who had fallen in the icy conditions outside and rather than interview the child and find out what had happened, Matthew decided to just ‘make it up’. It’s my guess that he didn’t think it was that important and he knew there was a cost involved to a face to face interview. However, he hadn’t bargained on the seriousness with which the two regulators took their role of fact checking. They went and interviewed the child and were in possession of the ‘facts,’ quickly realising Matthews’s account didn’t match the child’s. Later Matthew reflected ‘you shouldn’t lie’ and fellow group member Isaac added ‘well if it’s just about how many pieces a chocolate bar broke into it doesn’t matter, but if it is like the world is going to blow up, it does’. Matthew got to rewrite his story but his group have to pay a hefty fine. What bothered him was the thought that his group might not win and that his peers were disappointed he had lied.

The process of production created moments of crisis or decision-making which enabled the children to grapple with some of the most challenging issues we face in contemporary society. After Matthew had been fined the children all began rapidly checking their sources of information. The authenticity of the UFO story was called into question and many of them dropped it for fear of being fined. Others decided to go ahead because, although it was clearly fake, it was something the teachers had made up – so that was ok! This programme of activity was key to our findings that young children are capable of grappling with complex ideas in order to explore the world around them. Interestingly, the whole activity ran parallel to the aftermath of the Levison Inquiry. When I interviewed the children, later in the process, it was clear they had been paying attention to the news coverage, raising questions about the moral judgements of journalists listening in to people’s mobile phone messages.

Since this research project was reported, all traces of media education are long gone from the primary curriculum in England.  Perhaps, criticality is surplus to requirements in our post-truth, fake-news times; it hardly serves those seeking political office or positions of power. Indeed there is, arguably, an assumption that in contemporary times, anyone can create news and all of us like and share fake stories with impunity. However, as Barack Obama suggested at a recent conference:

If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.

Clearly, whether its about UFOs, ice accidents or the numbers attending the presidential inauguration – ‘the truth is out there’. Media education is key to equipping students with the skills they need to participate in establishing their own accounts and representing their own truths ethically and with judgement.

Becky is Assistant Professor of Education at the School of Education, University of Nottingham.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Jenkins, H. (2006). White paper Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Berkeley, US: MacArthur Foundation.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/nov/17/barack-obama-fake-news-facebook-social-media

Play Populism Bingo

By Becky Parry

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As 2016 closed it was hard to avoid the sound of journalists sharpening their obituary writing pencils. The ill concealed glee at the death of another celebrity seemed to provide a welcome break from the same old, same old news generated by elections and referendums. And who wouldn’t prefer to watch a David Bowie retrospective or a Victoria Wood special than listen to guffawing politicians swilling beer whilst pretending to be ‘the voice of the ordinary people’? Perhaps most shocking was the ease with which voters were won over by the impossible promises, misuse of statistics and fear mongering on offer. We may like complexity, nuance and ambiguity in our idols, but we don’t seem to appreciate these qualities in our politicians or our journalists.

It was therefore with a mix of amusement and awe that I reacted to my encounter with Populism Bingo, one of many resources of Kavi, the National Audiovisual Institute, Dept for Media Education and Audiovisual Media in (you guessed it) Finland!

Why amusement? The game invites students to analyse political speeches and spot the populist tactics – the winner spots them all. I chuckled to myself (yes demonically) thinking of all those staff meetings spent playing ‘Jargon Bingo,’ spotting the latest euphemisms for cuts or redundancy. This sounded like fun! I was grateful to Saara Salomaa, a specialist media educator from the institute, for introducing it to me.

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And why was I awe-struck? It struck me that this resource could only be produced in a country where media education is enshrined in law and an integral part of the curriculum. Neither are true of the UK and we certainly don’t have a government supported agency in charge of media education parallel to the one in Finland. The level of intellectual challenge and criticality demanded in this seemingly light-hearted game, speaks of a country comfortable with the role of the public in holding their politicians and journalists to account. And this was one of many resources (also available in English) encouraging children to engage critically, creatively and competently with the media. Significantly, Saara was visiting academics in the UK such as Professors Guy Merchant and Cathy Burnett with whom I have recently published Literacy, Media Technology: Past, Present Future. The visit was part of DigiLitEY a European funded project, enabling the dissemination of research focused on the very youngest children’s engagements with media. There is no shortage of relevant expertise and internationally renowned research in media education in the UK.

So, what matters to me this week is whether UK politicians and journalists could stop the ghoulish celebrity ambulance chasing and start to hold the population in enough esteem to campaign and report morally, ethically and with respect for expert professional opinion. Well maybe someday, if media education becomes enshrined in law in the UK and part of the curriculum they might. At least the young would then be able to spot the worst excesses of populist politics and journalism. In the meantime we will all have to play Populism Bingo! I think David and Victoria would approve.

Becky Parry is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham in the School of Education.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Why #researchmatters

by Howard Stevenson.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese proverb that is intended to be more an ironic curse than a blessing. Whilst we certainly live in interesting times I cannot think of any time in the 30 years I have worked in education that have not been ‘interesting’.  Nor should that surprise us. Few areas of social life have such an impact on every one of us individually. Education is, above all, about shaping our individual and collective futures.  Who are we? Who do we want to be? How do we want to live together? It is inevitable it will be the subject of discussion, debate and indeed dispute.

Education does not just prepare us for living in this new world, but it is also part of creating it. Education both shapes, and is shaped by, the world of which it is a part. At any one time, it both reproduces and transforms. This precisely why, for those who work in education, the opportunity should be a mix of privilege, exhilaration and responsibility.

Unfortunately many educators do not experience their work in this way. The fast pace of change, and the uncertainties of globalisation, have made politicians both anxious and arrogant. Tony Blair once said of education ‘we know what works’, the challenge apparently was to ‘apply those lessons [and] push them right through the system’. Change has to be rapid. Results must be immediate. All of this, in England at least, is reinforced by a top-down quality assurance system that decides what ‘good’ is without any meaningful involvement from local communities.

Powerful voices, often far removed from classrooms and the experiences of young people and their teachers, get to answer the big questions – what is education for? What should it look like? What is ‘good’?

Small wonder that teachers often feel devalued, and their professionalism undermined. Faced with constant changes to the curriculum, assessment and the high stakes accountability system that judges them it should not be surprising if a new dependency culture emerges. Over-worked and under-pressure teachers lower their sights – ‘just tell me what to do’. In such a world education research is either an irrelevance, or it is only useful if it is able to respond to the desperate plea ‘tell me what works’.

There is now an opportunity to change this. At policy level, there is a rhetoric that encourages teachers to engage with research (even if, for many teachers, having the time to be able to do this properly remains elusive). There are also many examples of teachers self-organising around research-engaged activities – in conferences, teachmeets and on social media. More and more research is becoming open source and accessible.

The problem remains that whilst access to new knowledge maybe opening up, the structures we often work in can serve to close it down. Much of the work that takes place is driven by a narrow set of questions, or the search for ‘quick wins’. The irony is that whilst we expect research to be transformatory, the reality may be that it is simply serving to reinforce. The challenge is to change this.

The answer lies in resisting the logic that separates teaching and research, and instead seeing teaching and researching as two sides of the same coin. Too often the two are divided (and this increasingly applies to universities as well as schools). Teachers teach. Researchers research. This is very different to the model of the early universities for example where teaching and research were seen as indivisible. The need now is to reinvent what Newman called ‘the idea of the University’ as a site of independent, critical thought and robust debate.  We need to celebrate research that asks big and difficult questions. We need to acknowledge complexity and uncertainty as the natural order, rather than pursuing quick fixes and easy wins. We need to debate what matters, as well as searching for what works. Above all we need to remind ourselves that the values of academic freedom, in schools as much as universities, are important features of a democratic society.

Such an opportunity provides a challenge to both researchers in universities and teachers in schools.  The challenge for researchers is to reinvent the idea of the university, but also to extend it beyond the bricks and mortar of the building we call ‘the university’.  The image of university education departments as disconnected and isolated ivory towers has long been a caricature. For example, in England the level of partnership work between schools and universities in relation to teacher education has been substantial over very many years. To portray it as otherwise is often a deliberate misrepresentation for political ends.  There is a need however to develop new relationships, be active in new spaces and not only make research more open and accessible, but more engaging.

The challenge for teachers is to begin to look up, in a system that often only encourages looking down.  Engaging with research is the way to re-professionalise the work of educators, and to counter the trends towards de-professionalisation that are long established in the system.  This is not easy.  Teachers’ working conditions often militate against such engagement, whilst the system, intentionally, does little to encourage discussion of big questions. However, the only people who can change this are teachers themselves. Many years ago, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves wrote a book entitled ‘What’s worth fighting for in education?’ I think teacher professionalism is worth fighting for.  However, this cannot be a ‘leave it to me, I’m the expert’ form of pseudo-professionalism. Rather it is a claim to professionalism predicated on a recognition of the extraordinarily complex work of teachers. This requires an engagement with research to help address the deep and complex questions that present themselves every day in every classroom in every school.

There is an opportunity to move beyond the impoverished debate about theory vs practice. Such divisions are unhelpful, and often cultivated deliberately. Another world is possible, but those of us who work in education must be willing to build it for ourselves. That possibility only becomes a probability if we find new ways to work together.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

Interested in education and research? Interested in What Matters?

What Matters is a new project, initiated by the School of Education, University of Nottingham. It is supported with funds from the Economic and Social Research Council. We are working with our local schools, with whom we have a strong partnership, but participation is open to anyone interested in what we are doing.

What Matters is a network of people involved in education who are interested in using educational research to address the difficult questions that confront those concerned with the education of young people.

The project is called What Matters, because we want to celebrate all the exciting ways in which education research can help us understand, explain and make sense of education and learning as social processes. We want to know what works, but there are a bigger set of questions we must also engage with. Hence our interest with what matters.

We think one of the defining features of What Matters, is the values that underpin our approach to research and how we work together.

Our values:

  1. We all matter – we are committed to addressing the questions we decide are important.  Those who work and study in schools are best placed to decide local priorities. What Matters is about trusting education professionals and users, and those in our communities, to set the agenda.
  2. Co-construction – we are committed to working together, education professionals, community members and researchers. There is no What Matters blueprint. What we create we will build together.
  3. Diversity of methods and approaches – we are committed to research as a dynamic and democratic process of enquiry. A research community, based on the principles of academic freedom, values a range of research methods and a plurality of ideas.  Members of What Matters engage in a wide variety of research methods from randomised control trials to auto-ethnography and participatory action research. All are valued.
  4. Social justice – we are committed to research that makes a difference. We value debate about the purpose and ends of education, but our commitment is to developing education’s contribution to the creation of fairer, more equal and more respectful communities locally, nationally and internationally.

What does this look like?

As the text above indicates, there is no blueprint.  We hope that we will all be involved in creating something collectively. However, at this early stage we are planning for the following activities:

  • The What Matters blog and website – an engaging blog discussing all matters research and education. Written by teachers, support staff, students and academics. Expect hashtags of #researchmatters #policymatters #teachingmatters and more.
  • A What Matters Reading Group – using innovative ways to encourage teachers to read and discuss research based articles or reports.
  • What Matters research networks – teachers and academics working together on shared areas of interest. Linking with existing networks in the School of Education, but also addressing other issues – yet to be determined.
  • A ‘What Matters Week’ – a week of events when schools, the School of Education and other education sites throw open their doors to host research based events (speakers, show and tells etc).
  • A ‘What Matters Conference’ – a one day event, mixing high profile speakers and the work of local teachers and students.

Get involved by:

Following us on twitter – @whatmattersUoN

Following the blog – click on the ‘follow’ button on the website

Attending events

Participate in an interest group

Blogging for What Matters – contact us

Participating in the Reading Group

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

#ResearchMatters

By Beth Greville-Giddings. 

There has never been a more exciting time to be engaged with education and research. Rapid changes to the curriculum, school structures and repeated calls for increased professionalism, alongside the increase in online publication and social media use, have provided the perfect opportunity for schools to engage with research to inform the way they work – and for researchers to engage with schools.

It seems that ‘Research’ has quickly become the new buzz word in education. No longer is it a school vs university thing or just reserved for the member of staff completing a masters module; people think getting involved in research is for them. Whether it’s members of a Teaching School Alliance as part of their ‘Big Six’ core areas of responsibility, or an enthusiastic headteacher that’s seen something on Twitter and maybe attended a conference, people are clamouring to get involved and all of a sudden everyone wants to be seen to be doing ‘it’. I think we need to be careful though that this rush to be involved doesn’t turn research into the latest, flash-in-the-pan educational fad. There’s always the potential to get bogged down in research for research’s sake and not look at why it’s important or how it can impact; the opportunities are too important for that.

Schools have a history of being subjected to a wealth of new ideas and interventions, often with the promise of an evidence base. As they are increasingly given control over areas such as marking, appraisal, CPD and assessment, schools have the chance to develop something that really works for their setting. Add to this the issues of accountability around use of funding such as Pupil Premium; when there’s so much hanging on getting it right why wouldn’t schools look to work with researchers and the evidence they can provide?

Being involved in research doesn’t have to mean conducting a full scale Randomised Control Trial and searching for the definitive solution to ‘what works’. The interest in educational research has certainly opened up opportunities for schools to take part in these things through organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation or The National College for Teaching and Leadership, but it’s by no means the only way to get involved – and it shouldn’t be. The term ‘evidence based practice’ is giving way to ‘evidence informed practice’ and practitioners are realising that they’re already using forms of enquiry in their day-to-day work. Whether that’s stopping to evaluate how programmes and processes are working within school, or simply taking part in personal reflective practice; taking that next step of asking some questions about how something has been tried before allows schools to have more control and confidence in their decisions.

The time for schools to get involved in education research has never been more important nor has the need to develop a critical eye. There are lots of people ready to jump on ‘research’ to sell solutions and our best defence is knowledge. Working in partnership, schools and universities can use research to drive the agenda; there is room for both deep, intellectual debate and for direct application of evidence. Research engagement isn’t a magic bullet and there will be different levels for different settings, but at a time when ‘scepticism of the expert’ is increasingly acceptable, it matters that we seize this opportunity to have research as central to our profession.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.