Heutagogy Community of Practice

Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning

The Manipulation of Information: What We Owe Our Students


There’s a lot to he learned that is useful from Trumpism and the recent hand wringing about the manipulation of public opinion through social media .

It would be a mistake to think that this is a recent phenomenon. Humans have traded in misinformation and false beliefs ever since we crawled out of the primordial ooze and developed a cerebral cortex. As I’ve discussed in another blog there is a physical, and survival reason, for this phenomenon (http://stewarthase.blogspot.com.au/2016/11/the-manipulation-of-public-opinion.html).

In brief, however, we are hampered by a rather limited short term memory, capacity wise, and a related inability to attend to multiple stimuli at any one time. We really can’t multitask, we serially task which is why we get exhausted when we try to do too many things at once. You can’t, you’re fighting biology. In order to adapt to complex environments, we have developed the capacity to make assumptions from small amounts of information, to selectively attend to things that fit with our beliefs and ignore other information, to stereotype others, to favour in-groups against out-groups and to use any number of what we call cognitive biases. This ability saves us processing power and means we can more quickly attend to other things that might be of more immediate importance.

So, we tend to accept what we are told, read or see, particularly if we think that the source is trustworthy although that safeguard may be disappearing with social media. Emotion plays a big part too. Advertisers have known this for a long time and manipulate our choice quite easily. We have always used the short cut of cognitive bias from pub to boardroom. We are gullible by virtue of our biological makeup.

When we lived in small tribes this wasn’t so much of a problem. It was easy to fact check and hard to get away with mischief. In our current environment, where communication is fast and widely networked, the risk for cognitive distortion to run rife is ever present. Added to that is the ability to deliberately manipulate information. (Cognitive bias is an unconscious activity and not deliberate-simply a biological artefact).

Again, the peddling of misinformation not a new phenomenon, the fall of Rome was brought about by mischievous people in the same way as we are seeing the disintegration of some Western nations. History repeats.

As educators one of the things that we owe our students and society at large is to teach them to discriminate. This means learning a whole lot of skills that enables them to fact check, to make a more rational decision before accepting information. So, research skills are clearly needed. Also important is the ability to self-reflect, to use thought-stopping to catch oneself before blind acceptance, to recognise our cognitive biases and how to combat them and to question our current hypotheses. Yes, I’m saying that we should help our students become scientists and question everything, to recognise that new facts can change our current view of the world. Even for educators.

These skills are more important than age tests for English literacy and numeracy. These are the skills that should be mandatory. Knowledge can be obtained but ways of thinking, double loop and triple loop learning need to be developed. And it is worth adding that these abilities have been part of the mantra of heutagogy (self-determined learning) since its inception in 2000. Sorry, couldn’t help but give it a plug-it’s a bias!


2 comments on “The Manipulation of Information: What We Owe Our Students

  1. Claire
    November 21, 2016

    This article is part of the problem.

  2. Alex Dunn
    June 21, 2018

    Sorry, I can’t help plugging my bias too. The contents of your blog reflects thinking, and thinking about teaching, that’s been around since at least 350 BCE and still persists, albeit tenuously, today: it’s called philosophy. 🙂

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