Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant opportunity: The Burnet News Club
Emily Evans, chief executive, The Economist Educational Foundation writes
Human rights in Russia. Veganism. The war in Syria. Social housing. The UK’s prison system.
Discussing current affairs topics such as these can help young people to understand the issues affecting their lives. It can also be a powerful way for them to develop critical thinking and communication skills: the news is the perfect stimulus for cognitively challenging debates. But topical issues can be controversial, sensitive, complex, or anxiety provoking. This can make people wary about talking to young people about current events.
At The Economist Educational Foundation, we support teachers to get the most from discussions about the news in their classrooms. We are an independent charity that was set up from inside The Economist newspaper in 2012. We run the Burnet News Club, a programme for state schools which develops young people’s critical thinking and literacy skills through open discussions about current affairs. Here are some of the tips we share with teachers.
Don’t shy away from difficult or controversial topics
Some of the more sensitive topics can lead to the best conversations – conversations that build important knowledge and understanding, open-mindedness and thinking skills. Talking about these topics in an age-appropriate way can make them less scary, by clarifying the facts and answering questions. Young people have hugely valuable views to offer on these issues, and they want to talk about them but have too few opportunities to do so. Just make sure you are aware of the group of young people in the classroom, in case they have any particular sensitivities or triggers.
Talking about these topics in an age-appropriate way can make them less scary, by clarifying the facts and answering questions
Don’t dumb down
Complex and controversial issues can be made accessible for beginners by explaining the important context and concepts. For example, a complicated issue like the Catalonian referendum can be made immediately accessible to someone new to the the topic if it’s put in terms of fundamental concepts such as independence or collaboration. Try not to dumb down issues because it can be patronising and off-putting, and can mean you have to remove the elements that ultimately make the subject interesting or important.
Don’t lead young people towards a particular viewpoint
To enable a healthy range of views to be shared, encourage young people to openly explore different points of view before they make up their own minds. Key to this is building an atmosphere of inclusion where views can be shared and discussed in a respectful way.
Do show why it matters
How does this issue affect real people, and aspects of life that are familiar to the young person that you’re speaking to? Who are the real people behind the main points of view on this? Showing this will take the topic out of the abstract and show what’s at stake, so young people can start to form an opinion. For example, if you were discussing Grenfell Tower, you could find out about availability of and waiting lists for social housing in the local area.
Do show solidarity with marginalised voices
As far as possible we recommend showing ‘solidarity’ with any potentially marginalised voices, ensuring that underrepresented or alternative views get a fair airing (so long as they’re reasonable and fact-based). This helps to make sure young people get a more complete picture of an issue, and that no particular young person feels put on the spot to defend themselves or a particular view. Consider the majority perspective in the conversation. You could also consider asking, ’Whose voice is missing here, and what might they say?’
Do challenge misinformation
Misinformation often comes from incorrect assumptions. It’s important to show that views should be supported by facts, and to challenge misinformation so that young people leave with an accurate picture of an issue. A recent National Literacy Trust review showed that many young people are unable to tell if a news story is real or fake – so it’s good to include activities encouraging them to challenge things that they have read.
If you are interested in the Burnet News Club for your school, contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Evans, The Economist Educational Foundation