Every year, when I’m teaching Media Influence to my year 12s, we look briefly at Orson Welles’ War of the Words broadcast, And every year, discussing how it had so much impact one of my students says something along the lines of, “but we’re just sort of smarter than they were back then”. What I hope they they are trying to say is that people today are more cynical and less trusting of the media, however I suspect that, deep down, many of them suspect that they are, in fact, sort of smarter than “people in the olden days”.
So, every year, in preparation for this conversation, I try to trick them, to prove that we’re all susceptible to a bit of media skullduggery. This year, I’m not sure whether to use this bit of Barry from Watford, which had me in stitches the first time I heard it, and (because I’m such a trusting soul) in no doubt that Barry was a real caller. Or this bit of trickery by Improv Everywhere. I might use both.
I hope that this does two things for my students. Firstly, I hope that they are forced to reflect on how they were tricked; to ask what media codes and conventions were used to trick them. Looking at the Improv Everywhere clip, it’s the cutaways to the supposed bystanders that really suck the audience in.
Secondly, I hope this somehow blunts the arrogance that they have in believing that they are somehow smarter than every generation that has come before them. That they feel connected to people around them, including people around them chronologically, fosters empathy and helps them to consider every situation they encounter from the point of view of others.
More broadly, though, it makes me wonder what the benefits might be of misleading our students more often. One of my favourite devices in both film and literature is the Unreliable Narrator. Think The Usual Suspects, The Others, or The Sting. The joy of watching these films is the moment when you realise that you’ve been misled, and you then go back over all the events of the narrative and question what was real and what was not. The unreliable narrator forces us to recall, reflect, question, think, evaluate evidence… all the things that we want our students to do.
So, how much should I lie to my students? Could deliberately misleading them on a regular basis actually improve their outcomes in the long run? Could their trust of me actually make them lazy? I suspect it depends, as always, on them.