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Post-truth written on blackboard

Famously, the Oxford English Dictionary made ‘post-truth’ the word of 2016, defining it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Whilst it is easy to think of spectacular examples from the last few years to illustrate the meaning of this word, it is hardly a new concept. The earliest reference I can find to such a thought (or actually its converse) is from St Augustine. He wrote in his ‘Confessions’, at the end of the fourth century, ‘A thing is not necessarily true because badly uttered, nor false because spoken magnificently’ although he didn’t write it in English!

The ‘fact’ (if indeed true) that society now needs a word such as post-truth is, of course, profoundly disappointing if you work in a school that aims to equip its students with the critical thinking skills to be able to research, weigh up evidence and develop, hold and defend opinions and judgements which are explicable to others as part of a preparation for adult life.

We are, of course, all affected by how a presentation or speech is delivered and enjoy being addressed by a warm, fluent and charismatic speaker. Many activities rely on these skills; often weaknesses in content are overlooked because of the high quality of the delivery. In Psychology I have seen this referred to as the ‘Dr Fox’ effect. In a land-mark experiment a fictitious Dr Fox, actually an accomplished actor, delivered a lecture on ‘Mathematical Game Theory and Physician Education’ to an audience of highly educated doctors. Dr Fox used the full range of thespian techniques to connect with and engage his audience. The audience rated the lecture extremely highly despite the content being deliberately filled with ‘an excessive use of double-talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradicting statements’ and the eponymous Dr Fox having no knowledge whatsoever of Game Theory or Medicine. A more recent study of the same scenario used more carefully constructed questionnaires for the audience to rate the lecture. The speaker’s effectiveness was again rated very highly, even by experts in Game Theory. However, responses to the questions also made it clear that most members of the audience were aware that they had not actually learned anything from the lecture. The implication is that we enjoy listening to charismatic speakers even if we know that we have learned nothing!

This has important implications for those of us who observe lessons regularly: we should not allow our enjoyment of the teacher’s delivery to affect our judgement of the learning that has taken place. Whilst the students may have greatly enjoyed the lesson the measure of success is what benefit there has been to their learning rather than to their pleasure. Of course, we would all rather listen to an impassioned and funny teacher but it is the content that makes the difference to the pupils, assuming that the teacher has the minimum of appeal necessary to engage the pupils.

In fact, welcome though charisma is, it is the quality of relationship between teacher and pupil that tends to determine whether the pupil will engage with the material being taught. Charisma may enhance this relationship but its existence is determined by whether the pupils perceive the teacher as kind, helpful, knowledgeable, infectiously enthusiastic about their subject, strict (but not scary), caring and respectful towards each individual and approachable. Successful teachers establish and enhance this relationship in many subtle and often unconscious ways which are frustratingly difficult to articulate or even observe. The relationship extends well beyond mere popularity and ensures that pupils achieve their very best through setting high expectations and making pupils believe that they are better than they ever thought they could be.

The well-regarded Sutton Trust regularly produce research on what makes an effective teacher and list the top 4 key factors (in decreasing order of importance) as:

Content knowledge: effective teachers have a deep knowledge of the subject. They also understand how students will think about the subject and what possible misconceptions they may hold and how these may be addressed.

Quality of instruction: effective teachers are good at asking the right questions as well as regularly reviewing previous work, introducing new work at the right pace and providing model responses for students.

Classroom climate: effective teachers have good relationships with their students which allow them to constantly demand more and gauge the right way to feedback ideas for improvement whilst still recognising the students’ self-worth. Effective teachers also attribute success in learning to effort rather than ability.

Classroom Management: effective teachers have clear rules for students’ behaviour and are able to use time and teaching resources effectively.

At SGS we are unashamed about appointing teachers with excellent knowledge of and passion for their subject. This is not to say, of course, that teaching (pedagogical) skills and the ability to build relationships with pupils are unimportant: the list above underlines that they are crucial aspects of success in the classroom but without teachers who are genuine experts in their subject areas the pupils’ learning will be hindered.

Eventually facts and deep understanding come to matter after the appeal to emotion and personal belief has been forgotten. The most successful politicians know that their narrative vision, the stories they tell, cannot separate too far from the often grim reality: perhaps this will become apparent again as the coronavirus pandemic subsides and more normal politics resume.