Last week the Department for Education in England issued new guidelines calling for teachers to teach in an unbiased manner. Such guidance is long overdue. Why? Anecdotally we know that some teachers are committed Marxists. A Left-wing teacher can of course teach in a balanced way. However, there are those who do not perform their pedagogical duties in an unprejudiced manner. Instead of teaching children to distinguish fact from opinion they present their opinions as facts.
We are often told about unconscious bias on racial issues. This can exist on political matters too. For some teachers, leftist shibboleths are taken as read: right-wing is presented as automatically racist and bad, capitalism is assumed to be exploitative, and imperialism unmasked as an unmitigated evil. These presuppositions find their way into textbooks and lessons.
Aged 9, as a diligent Soviet pupil, I remember reading Lenin’s biography The Life of Lenin (penned for younger readers), where one incident from his school days stood out. Young Lenin watched a precocious boy call another pupil names. Outraged, Lenin resolved to punish the villain. He organised a boycott in his year group, with classmates refusing to speak to the ‘wicked’ pupil for days, deaf to his apologies. The author presented Lenin’s solution as a virtuous example, to be followed and admired – and not to be questioned. When I mentioned to my teacher that it seemed wrong that Lenin himself wasn’t disciplined for getting the bully ostracised, she asked, darkly suspicious, “Who told you it’s wrong?”. This is how children were taught at socialist schools where teachers believe it is their duty to safeguard dogma, and where critical thinking is not only dormant, but verboten.
Lately some teachers in the U.K. seem not to realise that there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between teaching and preaching. To teach about a politically contentious topic involves a teacher telling the pupils what the facts are and then stating what the major schools of thought on the issue are. It is not opining and pretending that an ideological position is a fact and logically unassailable. If a teacher vocalises an opinion, he or she ought to be explicit that this is merely an opinion and state that pupils must not feel any pressure to either agree or disagree. In class discussions it behoves a teacher to make sure that all major viewpoints are presented. Pupils should then make up their own minds which view to subscribe to or perhaps a melange of two or more – or even to form no view at all. However, a teacher must play devil’s advocate if no pupil is willing to speak up for a certain viewpoint.
Pupils must learn to scrutinise narratives that present one side as morally upstanding and the other as entirely reprehensible. They must be taught how to question controversial matters, how to challenge trendy pieties, and how to follow the evidence wherever it goes. Education is the quest for truth.
It is said that the only thing permanent is change. In these blog posts I reflect on how schools and universities transform education by inventing social trends and then embracing them whilst breaking with the past.
Educational Strategists & Advisers on UK Secondary and Higher Education
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