This is the age of fake. Dictionary.com’s word of the year for 2018 was “misinformation”, and we are constantly hearing reports being dismissed as "fake news". It’s confusing enough for adults, but what must it be like for our students? How does a 13-year-old distinguish between what is reliable and what has been made up? Furthermore, how can they tell when they are being manipulated, whether it’s on social media or through advertising?
It’s difficult. But schools have to equip their students with the critical-thinking skills that can act as a compass in this highly complex landscape. The terrain is both physical, with real people demanding that we listen to their version of the truth, and virtual, with online messages and campaigns bombarding us with information designed to affect how we behave.
Background: Memory: how trips boost recall
Schools usually, understandably, link these issues to personal, social and health education (PHSE) and English. But the debates generated by these issues should feed into other subjects; fake news, or the deliberate spreading of misinformation, can be found in every discipline, from spurious claims about science to conspiracy theories in history. It’s something that all teachers have to deal with, and it will require new and imaginative approaches if we are to ensure that our young people become the objective, informed and robust readers of the media that we want them to be.
As an English teacher, I need to move beyond the usual practice of showing students how fake news is not a new phenomenon. As useful as this exercise is, it locates the various episodes in a past that can seem distant from students’ lives. I also want to shift the focus away from purely online research. Again, challenging widely accepted myths through conventional news outlets and video can be really effective, but I would like my pupils to experience it in a hands-on way. In this digital age, authentic experiences that are social and face-to-face have greater validity.
A lesson in celebrity and fame
I like to explore this through the subject of celebrity because it is engaging on so many levels and accessible for all abilities. It’s something as old as human society itself, but we rarely look beyond the gloss and glamour, perhaps believing (wrongly) that it’s a superficial and facile subject.
Once you move beyond discussing who your students’ favourite famous people are, you can start talking about how fame is made: what is it and who constructs it? How is disseminated? To what extent is the image a reality? Why does every society create celebrities? Such questions quickly hook students in because they all have knowledge and opinions on them.
Then you need to challenge their assumptions about what is valuable and what is not, and push them into thinking more deeply about fame. Ideally, they will look at fame through a wider lens, bringing greater context into focus.
No company has a longer history of bringing the famous within reach than Madame Tussauds, and it now hosts dedicated workshops for students to explore the complex relationships between celebrity, culture and the media. It’s an undeniably fun experience; the students are able to “meet” the stars they look up to, take selfies, discuss how tall (or small) they are, and so on.
But it also offers a lot more than that, cleverly subverting ideas about fame. When the children enter, for instance, they are met by paparazzi and have their photos taken. This can prompt interesting discussions about whether this was flattering or intrusive; you can encourage your students to reflect on when (or if) celebrity can be turned off.
One of the most popular celebrities in the exhibition is Kim Kardashian. Students jostle to have pictures taken with her (as “she” takes a selfie, which leads on to discussions about the different layers of image). This can spark interesting conversations about the nature of her fame, in comparison to, say, Michelle Obama’s.
Students can experiment and debate whether an image of them with Kanye West from the workshop would gain the same response on Instagram from their friends as one taken with the Queen. If not, why not? How did that make them feel? Why are these levels of fame different?
Students can watch and explore how members of the public respond to the famous faces in front of them: behaviour very often conforms to a type when encountering divisive figures such as Donald Trump. Again, teachers can ask why that happens, and who controls it. Is this behaviour learned? Would we know if we were being influenced against our wills?
Celebrity is a social construct: you can’t be famous on your own, without an audience. Understanding this is a vital first step towards students critically re-evaluating what makes a person’s image, and how much that narrative is created by others. Asking such questions, and talking with others to explore the answers, are the most authentic and real responses our students can have. In the age of fake, keeping it real has never been more important.
David James is deputy head (academic) at Bryanston School