Student Achievement Opinion

‘Alternative Facts': A Wake-Up Call for Educators

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 29, 2017 5 min read
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Who would have guessed, even a few months ago, that long standing cultural value placed on truth would succumb to “alternative facts” and “fake news”? Yet, when we turn to examine history, we see a potential deeply buried thread. The old adage to the “victor belong the spoils” has included the privilege of telling the story and writing the history. Ask any defeated or oppressed people and this is confirmed. For example, the study of American history from the 1600’s in this country is all told through the eyes of the ‘white man’, the European explorers and settlers and immigrants. The story is told as if the land was empty waiting for us but there were already people here. Yet, the experience of the Native Americans is left to elective courses or independent study. What a shame. Had truth been served, both the European and Native American parts of the story would have been written and taught. So do we parse the story into pieces of partial truths and settle or seek all there is to know? Sometimes the long ignored pieces come back with a rage and resistance demanding to take a seat at the table of truth. Think about the opposition to the Keystone Dakota Access Pipelines. Often there are facts and truth in multiple and disparate perspectives. Listening for those is a characteristic of a wise leader. But, this week there is a sense that something new is happening. Why?

What Is Truth?
We are not certain what Kellyanne Conway (we all know who she is, don’t we?) was thinking when she presented the concept of ‘alternative facts’ in an interview. In our minds, she was equating “fake news” with “alternative facts”. One does elevate something when one gives a name to it. We shudder thinking about the values we were taught at home. To tell a lie was among the most serious offenses as a child. But, things change in a lifetime and this week we find ourselves listening to the White House as a source of “fake news” and “alternative facts” and we suggest even “fake alternative facts”. So, does this become a new leadership skill, the creation of facts that brings us a desired outcome? Or is this just calling out a long standing practice? Haven’t we always tried to tell our story factually even if there were some facts left out? Of course, we sell building projects and mergers and budgets in service of children, not of ourselves. That’s the rub in the week. The dust is kicked up about seemingly insignificant things raised to a level of national attention by a question of “what is truth?”. That is an important question for educators to consider.

One Fact At A Time
Just as doctors are taught to discover one cause for symptoms, our curriculum is designed to tell one story at a time. What if we changed it to be more than one story at a time? It would force complexity into classrooms, stimulate minds (and maybe hearts) to open by making sense of two competing “facts”. Once becoming used to that kind of thinking and learning, when confronted with a problem to be solved, instead of immediately taking sides, the first step could be understanding both sides. And if both sides begin in that way, negotiation can result either in consensus or, at least, an understanding of opposition. Treatment of different beliefs and opinions will be softened. Respectful treatment of each other will become a natural outcome of understanding the ‘other’. We recognize this isn’t what is currently swirling around us. It is instead the desire for one or the other “alternative fact” to drown out the other, for one to win at the expense of the other. That kind of victory breeds alienation.

Two Truths At A Time
Minds and hearts don’t open when we teach ‘us’ and ‘them’. They open when we understand how others think and feel about things. We can, of course, debate whether that builds strength of character for a person or a nation or erodes it. But, for this moment, let’s proceed as if it is a good thing to be compassionate and kind as a person or nation. Those qualities are not mutually exclusive from strength.

This more whole sense of truth can’t be accomplished in a unit of study, or a grade level discussion, or an assembly program or a board meeting. As educators work to prepare students for college and career, concentrating on how subjects are taught must, now, include the skills to understand and distinguish among ‘alternative facts’.

Another way to look at it is perspective. How something appears depends upon where one stands. How one feels about something depends upon their life experience and current conditions. We have become a polarized nation. Sides taken are extreme. It is difficult when a position is presented if it offends or runs counter to deeply held beliefs. In order to organize curriculum to allow for two truths at once, first teachers and leaders have to develop the capacity to lead holding two truths or be skillful at helping others see a merged truth. This is not something that can be taught to students if it cannot be done oneself. This is truly a case where “do what I say, not what I do” fails. In order to embrace this as a way of thinking educators have to be able to experience the practice of ‘walking in another’s shoes’.

In The End
That may be easier when teaching history or literature or in the constantly unfolding fields of science and technology. It is even less easy when making decisions that affect students, faculty, parents, and community members. But it is another route to an empathetic practice. We do not all agree. But we can teach how to care for others and understand ‘the other side.’ The question to ask is whether we are generating more heat than light. The practice can develop young minds that are able to understand even those who disagree or believe differently. So maybe this ‘alternative fact’ thing isn’t a bad thing after all. In the long struggle with those who believe public education has failed children we have ‘alternative facts’ to present. We haven’t been well heard by policy makers. Let’s seize the day and use the new label to benefit children. Maybe this is a wake-up call.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.