How to discuss the news with your students

After the recent Westminster attacks, we had a heavy reminder that the world has become an increasingly uncertain place. The Economist Educational Foundation is a charity set up in 2012 to help young people to develop an informed view of the world, the thinking skills to form sound opinions and the confidence to have their say. Here Lucy Palmer from the charity shares best practice techniques for discussing current events with your students.

2017’s news feed never seems to stop, there’s now a constant stream of stories which, for students, could be confusing or upsetting. With young people spending more time online, it’s inevitable these stories will reach them, so how do we manage conversations about what they’ve found? Setting up a discussion about a news story- or having one sprung upon you by a curious student- can be daunting. Especially if you feel you don’t have a complete grasp on the issue yourself. You may be worried about telling them what to think, or you might simply not have the time.

I work for The Economist Educational Foundation and we have a programme called the Burnet News Club which supports teachers to facilitate conversations about the news and develop students’ critical thinking skills in a weekly club. Many tell us it’s their favourite part of the week, a chance to see their students in a different light.

If you’re a teacher who has found the current world events a challenge in the classroom, we would like to share with you some practical techniques recommended by teachers in our programme:

1. Find accessible content

This way, you don’t have to be the expert, you can go through the content and then engage critically with it. You can focus on listening to, or facilitating discussions.   

The Foundation team work with The Economist journalists and make content available to teachers before each half term. There are lots of great places to find resources to support discussions around current affairs issues. The Week Junior, The Day (who made their Westminster Attack resources accessible here) and BBC School Report are all great programmes supporting teachers and students who want to navigate the news. BBC Newsround and BBC Newsbeat are both great for explainers on issues for younger students.

2. Define and develop critical thinking skills

These are increasingly important as fake news fill news feeds. If young people can engage critically with the news, they can begin to form sound opinions on it. Key skills to foster include logic, scepticism, curiosity, negotiation and storytelling.  Another great schools programme putting an emphasis on knowledge and critical thinking skills is Debating Matters. [LINK: http://www.debatingmatters.com/]

3. Put them into the story

Design lesson plans and activities so that the students are at the heart of the decision making process. We provide lesson plans with our content and get great feedback from teachers who draw out the real life links to what they’re discussing too.

Claire Hofer, teacher at Elaine Primary Academy said, “Sometimes the news can feel very very far away. Reminding them that in a few years they’re going to be able to vote and make big decisions about these things helps them to see how important it is for them to know about it.”

Celina Viner, teacher at Faringdon Community College also shared some of the ways she makes the news accessible, “I’ll show them the similarities between what they’re doing and so much of what we do as adults keeping up to date and using social media.  So I’ll show them my politics Facebook group discussions to show them how that lines up with what we do in the club.”

4. Give them an audience

We have an online Hub, where young people can come to discuss these issues with other schools, and where they receive responses from experts. Keith Robert’s from Graveney School spoke to us about the impact the online discussion can have.

“If something is troubling, or they have a question they can ask to talk about it and there’s that space for them to go. It has that security because they know the Hub is a supportive space where they’re not going to be ridiculed.”

There’s also Speakers for Schools,a great programme which can help you to get an expert in to speak to your school. Finding someone who might be an expert in a recent news story gives students a real sense that what they’re saying is being listened to.

5. What to do if the news upsets you

If your students are still finding the news upsetting our advice is to first ask them to check the facts as these can be exaggerated or made up. We also encourage students upset about the news to do something, so they can have some impact on the issue. So, for example when discussing the Syrian conflict we encouraged the Burnet News Club members to write to Theresa May.

Finally, there’s also Childline’s ‘Worries About The World’ page for young people to share concerns.

We understand how difficult it can be to make time to discuss the news. It’s become increasingly recognised as something we need to invest time into. Sasha Pleasance’s piece in TES on the dangers of stifling discussions on challenging issues, and Daniel Finkelstein’s recent piece on the need to teach children how to fight fake news, are testament to this.

Working with the Burnet News Club teachers, and reading or watching the discussions their students are having in the club gives me real, and well-founded optimism for the next generation. With teachers like ours, I know young people are not only going to develop the critical thinking skills they need to understand political decisions or world events, but also gain the confidence to change things too.