Why I Lie to My Students

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 SuspectsThe 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.




4 thoughts on “Why I Lie to My Students

  1. I like the way you build healthy skepticism in your students. We can all be tricked, and it’s happening online to people of all ages every day. At the same time, I suspect that your over-confident students are still onto something. They probably are just a little better equipped than previous generations to spot the real from the phoney. I suspect they’re even just a little smarter than previous generations too. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect But no need to tell them. They probably already know! 😉

  2. Interesting idea. I think that there is a lot of baggage attached to the role of the teacher Eric compared to the role of the student. My greatest goal is to empower student to make their own reasoned choices, yet every time I have provided them with a situation this year to really break out and really take control, they go looking the spoon that will feed them. I feel that this in some respect comes back to the expectation about the roles. ‘Lying’ to students is probably a good idea, telling them aspects about yourself, just doing anything which distorts the transference as to who you might be and what role you might serve can only be a good thing right? In small doses of course, for then they will never trust us. Maybe though those who lead us should lie to us as well? I really liked WIll Richardson’s point about sharing the learning with students, being open about it, the challenges, the issues, the different elements of problem solving. Would things be different if the leaders of the school, the region etc … openly did the same?

    1. HI Aaron. I find exactly the same thing. When I tell students that I seriously don’t know the answer you can sense their frustration. I think that modelling effective learning is probably the best thing we can do for our students. I do want them to trust me, but I also want them to think critically about whatever content we’re dealing with. It’s a balancing act. There is something very powerful about teaching Scratch (for example) when the students realise that you seriously don’t know how to do what they are trying to achieve and that they’ll have to figure it out with you. I hope the role of school leaders, the region etc is a little different, but it would make for an interesting workplace. Cheers.

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