Using Philosophy for Children to help children spot fake news

Paul Stockley of Bradway Primary School in Sheffield discusses how his school uses Philosophy for Children, or P4C, to help children get to grips with fake news.

© SAPERE/Ian Wallman 2018

Hardly a week passes without a reference to ‘fake news’. However, there is nothing new about fake news and incorrect news stories; they’ve been around since ancient times.

In Ancient Greece, for example, news was often received via unofficial sources, making it very difficult to tell whether it was true or false. Merchants would spread rumours of storms and shipwrecks to raise prices. It was also a tactic used during wartime. When a barber spread news, told to him by an escaped soldier, of the disaster Athens had suffered in Sicily in 413 BC, he was tortured for spreading civil unrest — until his story was confirmed to be true.

As the internet has taken over from newspapers as the main source of news for many of us, it has become increasingly difficult to know what to believe. Today, so much of what passes for news is actually opinion or is deliberately distorted, even invented.

In 2016, research revealed that 84% of 18-24 year-olds in the UK get their news online, with Facebook being a common source. For many people, the internet has replaced newspapers and television as their primary source of news and information about what is happening both locally and globally.

This has had profound consequences for the way we form opinions and, together with parents, I believe that schools need to play their part in helping young people to make sense of it all.

Russia is often held up as the originator of many fake news stories (although it is far from being alone). A 2018 BBC investigation into the ‘Russian disinformation game’ noted that, following the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17, ‘the goal was to confuse people, to polarise them, to push them further and further away from reality.’

If it is difficult for an adult to navigate this increasingly labyrinthine puzzle that we call the news, just imagine how much more difficult it is for children and young adults, who are also targets of this type of misinformation.

At Bradway Primary School in Sheffield, we are educating our children to use strategies which will both help them face these challenges and keep them safe online. We are also offering workshops, information and advice for parents.

All this is, of course, important, but I believe that children also need to spend time thinking about what they perceive as true and why this is the case. When faced with a news story, do they question where it is from and whether it is credible or do they accept what they are told?

At Bradway we use Philosophy For Children (P4C) as a way of encouraging children to share their beliefs and opinions about the world in a safe class ‘community of enquiry’. In these P4C sessions, children are encouraged to ask questions about the world, to challenge each others’ opinions in a respectful way, and to discuss topics that matter to them.

For example, in a Year 4 class about the Second World War, we looked at pictures of people whose lives had been changed as a result of physical injury sustained in war. This provoked children to ask questions about why war happens and what it is like to live with disabilities. The discussions were profound and children talked in a respectful and tolerant way as they explored the questions that arose. By discovering each others’ views the children gained new insights, deeper learning and a greater appreciation for the impact that war has on individuals and on communities.

This sort of ‘dialogic’ learning, learning that takes place through dialogue, was common in ancient times but over time was gradually superseded by the written word. In the modern education system it seems that there is little value placed on children’s ability to speak, to reason and to debate, despite these skills being highly valued by employers. Indeed the ability to communicate effectively, to be able to problem solve and make decisions are qualities that top the wish lists of most prospective employers.

So if children are to grow up into well rounded adults with good mental health they must be able to challenge the plethora of information which they are presented with from every side, every day. This includes ‘fake news’ and also social media, which can sow its own brand of disinformation so easily amongst the young and impressionable.

Now more than ever, we need to be nurturing their thinking skills, helping them to form opinions and encouraging them to question and challenge the world around them.

A version of this article first appeared in the Bradway Bugle.

Paul Stockley is head teacher of Bradway Primary School, a SAPERE P4C Silver Award School. He is also a registered trainer for and trustee of SAPERE P4C, the UK’s national charity supporting Philosophy for Children. He tweets at @bradwaystockley.

Watch this video to learn more about P4C at Bradway Primary School: