How To Teach In A World Of "Alternate Facts"

01/26/2017 12:49 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

 How do you teach current events in a highly politicized climate in which facts have alternate versions and newspaper editors have worn out the thesaurus looking up synonyms for lie?

In the last week, we’ve been buried under an onslaught of controversies that are not about differences in opinion or judgment, but about alternate versions of reality. Just how big was that inauguration crowd? Did undocumented immigrants by the millions vote illegally? Is the education system “flush with cash,” while our students are “deprived of all knowledge”?

Judging from what teachers have recently told Teaching Tolerance, it looks like many have decided that current events are just too hot to handle in the classroom. “Is it possible to discuss politics or, even, social justice issues in a middle school classroom,” a teacher asked us recently, “without incurring the wrath of parents?” A middle school librarian admitted she was treading carefully because “teachers are afraid of being accused of political bias.”

What can an educator do when, as a high school teacher said, “A sense of having to be neutral is pervasive”?

Neutrality is fine when you’re presenting two sides to a policy dispute. Trade policy, energy policy and tax policy can all be presented in terms of opposing arguments, interests and values.

But there can be no neutrality when the issue is whether a narrative is fact-based or not. That gets to the core of what education is all about: Students are supposed to learn how to test and substantiate claims while they critically examine arguments and evidence.

So how do you challenge falsehoods? Not by denouncing them, but by inviting inquiry.

No doubt, some would say that talking about the relative size of the inaugural crowd is a distraction from the real issues, and not worth talking about. If students are talking about it, though, it’s worth examining as a way to build their critical muscles.

Let’s set the scene. Your students are walking into class and ask you what you think about the size of the crowd. Don’t let the alarm bells go off as you desperately seek a way to avoid controversy. Instead, toss it back to them with a few framing questions in mind: What’s the controversy? How can we get at the facts? Why does it matter?

The controversy at hand is that we’ve been presented with two different versions of the size of the 2017 inauguration crowd versus the 2012 inauguration crowd. Use a T-chart to get the various claims listed for each side, paying particular attention to the conflicting claims that can’t possibly both be true.

Next, how can you get at the facts? Brainstorm questions about how officials in Washington, D.C., might estimate the size of a crowd. As it turns out, there’s something of a science to crowd estimation, and it’s called the Jacobs Method, named for the journalist who came up with it in the 1960s. It’s basically area times density—you could even work in some kinesthetic learning by dividing your classroom floor into squares and seeing how many students can comfortably stand in a square made up of nine tiles. Challenge students: Ask them what information would someone need to estimate crowds over an area as big as the National Mall (hint: think aerial photograph and accurate map).

Applying the Jacobs Method isn’t always easy. For one thing, crowd density is uneven, as anyone who’s ever attended an outdoor music concert can attest. People might be packed so tight near the stage that an artist can count on being able to surf the crowd. Further back, the density of the crowd is going to be lower, as people trade off access for a little more personal space.

Since the Jacobs Method isn’t perfect, you might challenge students to think of other ways to measure how many people traveled into Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. Some ideas: How did car traffic compare? What about hotel occupancy? Passengers on the DC Metro? Sales of snacks by vendors near the National Mall? Clearly, not all of this data is available, but generating the questions is the way to start getting at the facts.

At no time during this inquiry do you need to state a position or dispute facts; all you need to do is guide inquiry and help students figure out what questions to ask and what are good sources for facts. I suggest you make this a regular exercise and, in the interest of objectivity, apply it whenever the facts are in doubt.

But don’t stop there, because the final question is the most important: Why does it matter? If your students are fans of Hamilton: The Musical—in which two songs are “The Story of Tonight” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”—they might think to ask about who is telling the story and why.

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