Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the re-emergence of One Nation, refusal to accept human induced climate change and the failure of other evidence based policy initiatives such as needs-based school funding and health care. As we see this occurring, Prof. Andrew J. Hoffman from the University of Michigan wars that educators are losing relevance in our society and we must move to stop it.
In the many keynotes and public lectures I have given, I often emphasise the transformational power of education. But the issues identified above highlight how we, as educators, continue to fail in our ability to confront complex social, cultural, environmental and political issues.
In other words, we lose debates to slogans.
If education is about confronting ignorance, challenging power with truth and ensuring people are making informed decisions – both in formal politics and in their personal lives – we are simply failing.
Rather than a discussion based on fact, we are seeing emotion, half-truths and outright refusal to listen.
This is not limited to reactionary forces and the far right – progressives are often guilty of this also. Let me add a couple of contentious issues that many of my friends rally against and in doing so often use emotive language: nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms.
(For the record, I do not think we should pursue nuclear power but I am starting to feel more comfortable with some dimensions of genetically modified foods).
Just how much we have failed emerges most sharply in the United States. In 2015, a Pew Research Centre study found the following gulf between scientific opinion and the position of the general public:
…87 percent of scientists accept that natural selection plays a role in evolution, 32 percent of the public agree; 88 percent of scientists think that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, 37 percent of the public agree; 87 percent of scientists think that climate change is mostly due to human activity, only 50 percent of the public agree.
In Australia, views on climate change are much more aligned to the scientific community; 78 percent of the Australian public agree that climate change is happening according to a CSIRO report. But if we dig deeper into the figures, only 46 percent believe it is human induced. Even if we take the first figure, this still means that despite overwhelming evidence, one in five Australian’s refuse to accept the need for the major social, environmental and economic change to meet the challenges confronting us.
So what can we do?
The first thing is to accept that a large majority of the failing is because of us educators. Be it in the way we communicate in our classrooms or lectures, or the priority of academic publishing over public engagement and knowledge communication (through textbooks for example), we seem to be terrible at transferring our knowledge. The second step is to be prepared to alter the curriculum as well as the way we educate.
As such, here are seven things that we must do if we are to stop failing as educators:
1. Introducing knowledge translation subjects across all disciplines
Communication and knowledge translation must be a priority of all disciplines – from the hard sciences to the humanities and everything in between. We have not only failed to adequately communicate how humans are responsible for altering the climate, but the value of the arts and a liberal arts based education is fundamental.
2. Add ‘confronting a post-truth world’ as learning outcome across subjects
For those who do not know what ‘learning outcomes’ are, they are meant to summarise the knowledge student should gain during the course of a subject. The problem I have with these is that they are written by academics for academics –most students do not understand what they mean. These need to be altered not only to be accessible and self-evident, but also measurable – ensuring our graduates have the skills to challenge those that use emotion and lies trumping fact.
3. Social media training
Social media is not for everyone – nor should it be. But opinions and debates play out here. Though individuals may not want to participate directly in, there is a need to understand its power and the way it works. Even if using these mechanisms to communicate indirectly, our students should be trained in social media. One example could be to have the media people within our institutions communicate research on behalf of students.
4. Ensure researchers understand that just because it’s published, does not mean people accept it
I always presumed that because something was published, it would be accepted. What I have found is that I rarely convince my colleagues of the value of my research, so how can I assume that the broader public will join me on my journey? We have to work on the assumption that every piece of research and knowledge needs to be communicated in multiple ways – and often repeatedly.
5. Scientific research is part of the cultural wars
In an ideal world, the mission of scientific research in both the social and hard sciences should be separate from politics. The truth is, however, that our work is now central to the cultural wars that are happening between ideologies.
Research outcomes seem no longer simply about knowledge development, but are tools to attack political opponents. Unless our research fits into the political ideology of some it will be dismissed or attacked.
6. Less essays or lab books: more general communication
Training students in writing traditional essays is important – but so is promoting the vast array of communication mechanisms needed. I ask my colleagues: ‘is there a need for another essay here?’ In other words, we should re-evaluate our assessment structure to promote more general audience communication with less time on the academic writing conventions.
7. We must be what we want our students to be
In a recent discussion with a student who thanked me for the refreshing nature of one of my subjects, she explained that her supervisor insists she simply ignore everything else and simply ‘get in the lab’. It reflects the priority of the supervisor who sees no value in communicating to the public.
If we want our students to be prepared to speak truth to lies and confront our post-truth world, we need to prioritise such public engagement along with academic conventions – otherwise we are simply aggravating the situation we helped to create.
The post truth challenges we face are not going away – we must confront them both as researchers and educators. If we do not, we are simply endorsing them through our own neglect.