Originally written for SecEd Magazine and published on 15 June 2022.
In 2011, I became a head of department for religious education and sociology in a rather large comprehensive. The department, according to the then deputy head, was “on its knees” and needed revamping.
Among the outdated schemes of work was a year 7 unit on conspiracy theories, including a lesson on whether the moon landings were fake and another looking at alien abduction, Roswell and Area 51. Back then I assumed that these were taught to simply engage the students by a teacher with a somewhat open-minded approach to the curriculum.
Should conspiracy theories be taught?
It could be argued that conspiracy theories and alternative explanations force us to think critically about multiple and conflicting interpretations of historical events, current affairs and how the world really works.
Over the years, however, I have questioned this naïvely innocent assumption as popular conspiracy theories have moved from seemingly benign and silly takes on world events to more sinister views on how the world is ordered, by whom and why (of course, some of recent history’s oldest conspiracies are the most sinister and enduring, such as the anti-Semetic Protocols of the Elders of Zion).
For me, this sea-change started with pupils heckling references to the 9/11 attacks in a lesson on terrorism, an angry response that Ugandan warlord Joesph Kony “in no way exists” during a lesson on child soldiers, and a demand that I accept “Bill Gates is into eugenics and guilty of genocide” from a sixth-former.
I have also had pupils publically express their belief that Hiliary Clinton trafficks children – a belief associated with QAnon – and that climate change is “just an opinion”.
Not surprisingly, Sophie Gilbert, writing in The Atlantic, suggests that conspiracy theories are now a mainstay of popular culture and that: “Overactive imaginations can be dangerously irrational while also being the hallmark of great storytellers everywhere.” (Gilbert, 2019)
Indeed, many teenagers love these conspiratorial narratives, just like younger children love fairy tales; as the poster behind Agent Mulder’s desk in the X-Files states: “I want to believe”.
Conspiracy theories can be damaging
Sadly, children are confronted on a daily basis by various social media influencers, popular YouTubers and so-called experts who post all sorts of intriguing but highly misleading content online. Studies have shown that a lot of this content conveys extremist ideologies, which young people might not be aware of (Boyd, 2014; Peters & Johannesen, 2020).
Surveys are also suggesting that views emanating from the above are increasingly prevalent. Two years ago, the charity Hope not Hate found that 29% of people surveyed agreed with the statement: “Regardless of who is officially in charge of governments and other organisations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.” (Hayward & Gronland, 2021)
Worryingly for teachers, the number agreeing rose to 38% and 43% among 18 to 24 and 25 to 34-year-olds respectively. Furthermore, 35% of the younger age group agreed that “secret satanic cults exist and include influential elites” and a similar amount (26%) agreed that “elites in Hollywood, politics, the media and other powerful positions” are secretly engaged in large-scale child trafficking and abuse (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).
Not only do conspiracy theories mislead, but they also present us with a safeguarding concern. Researchers Bettina Rottweiler and Paul Gill have found that “a stronger conspiracy mentality leads to increased violent extremist intentions” (2020), especially among people with “low self-control”.
They go on to suggest: “It is vital to equip young people with sufficient digital literacy in order to detect false and ‘counter knowledge’ online”. Other researchers have found similar links between conspiracy theories and political violence (Vegetti & Littvay, 2022).
So what to do?
Arguably the best way to prevent the spread of conspiracy theories is to intellectually inoculate pupils against blindly believing misinformation. Lewandowsky and Cook (2020) suggest that if people are preemptively made aware that they might be misled, they can develop resilience to conspiratorial messages. This process is known as “prebunking”. Therefore, teachers and schools should teach pupils the following skills.
Media literacy: Pupils need to be taught how mis-, dis- and mal-information intentionally misleads or causes harm as well as the danger that social media algorithms pose by reinforcing our own biases.
Scientific literacy: Scientific literacy refers to pupils’ understanding of scientific concepts and processes and their ability to apply this knowledge to new and non-scientific situations. Yes, this is taught in science lessons, but pupils need to see how this extends beyond the subject itself as the idea someone is “following the science” is used in all kinds of conspiratorial arguments. A lot of conspiracies, such as climate change denial, anti-vaccination scare-mongering, and the link between 5G and Covid, rely heavily on pseudo-science.
Historical literacy: Regardless of whether they study history as a GCSE option, pupils should be taught how to approach historical claims, especially the importance of historical sources and established fact. Although “historical literacy” does not have a commonly agreed definition, it can be summed up as ‘coherent, conceptual, and meaningful knowledge about the past that is grounded in the critical use of evidence’ (Downey & Long, 2016). This could counter Holocaust denial and distortion as well as overly nationalistic takes on dubious historical events.
Training: Our Prevent training tackles various types of extremism, but the training I have received only makes passing reference to conspiracy theories. Do teachers themselves know how to identify theories such as the “great reset”, the “great replacement theory”, or the “new world order”?
Dealing with conspiracy theories
In terms of dealing with – or even trying to debunk – conspiracy theories as they arise in class, it is imperative that we:
- Avoid mocking pupils’ views: If you publicly ridicule or belittle someone’s opinion, it could easily cause a defensive reaction and/or entrench their views.
- Do not engage in adversarial debate with pupils: This is particularly important if it is a zero-sum argument. It is hard to admit one is wrong at the best of times, so it may be worth subtly or indirectly challenging the point made and swiftly moving on.
- Show empathy: Regardless of our own emotions, we should be empathic and endeavour to build an understanding with our pupils. Our goal is to develop the conspiracy theorist’s open-mindedness, so we should lead by example. Of course, exceptions would include any expressions of racist, sexist or religiously intolerant opinions where the pupil is clearly aware of what is being said.
- Find common ground: Unless the views expressed are particularly offensive, perhaps acknowledge – even appreciate – the “critical thinking” of the pupil before calmly laying out consensus thinking or establishing the facts in an objective manner.
- Encourage critical thinking: Get pupils’ to question their ascertains. Where does this idea originate? Is there any hard evidence? Could there be a malicious intent underlying this assumption? Essentially, it can be next to impossible to prove a conspiracy theory false within the limited timeframe of a lesson – but the goal of the conversation should be to encourage the person to be more open-minded and consider the possibility that it may be false.
- If in doubt, refer to safeguarding procedures: We need to ensure our pupils are safe. If you think anything raised in class is putting the pupils, or potentially other people, in danger, remember your Prevent training and follow procedures as appropriate. This is particularly important if you think the views are coming from home. It is best to avoid challenging parents directly unless specifically trained to do so – otherwise you could make matters worse.
Most conspiracy theories go against what we do as teachers, which is to educate pupils about the world. However, it is one thing to simply convey knowledge to pupils, it is another to give them the skills to successfully further their own acquisition of knowledge without falling down obscure rabbit holes. Hopefully some of the ideas above will help. Of course, the cynic in me wants to quote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Why look for conspiracy when stupidity can explain so much” – but that might not be helpful.
Further information & resources
- Boyd: It’s Complicated: The social lives of networked teens, Yale University Press, 2014.
- Downey & Long: Teaching for Historical Literacy: Building knowledge in the history classroom, Routledge, 2016.
- Gilbert: The American paranoia of stranger things 3. The Atlantic, July2019:https://bit.ly/3G205wB
- Hayward & Gronland: Conspiracy theories in the classroom: Guidance for teachers, UCL, 2021: https://bit.ly/38sStXl
- Lawrence & Davis: QAnon in the UK: The growth of a movement, Hope Not Hate, October 2020: https://bit.ly/384cOTe
- Vegetti & Littvay: Belief in conspiracy theories and attitudes toward political violence, Italian Political Science Review (52,1), 2022: https://bit.ly/3KvOtn7
- Lewandowsky & Cook: The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, 2020 http://sks.to/conspiracy
- Peters & Johannesen: What is actually true? Approaches to teaching conspiracy theories and alternative narratives in history lessons. Acta Didactica Norden (14, 1), 2020:https://bit.ly/3DV8pxn
- Rottweiler & Gill: Conspiracy beliefs and violent extremist intentions: The contingent effects of self-efficacy, self-control and law-related morality, Terrorism and Political Violence (1-20), 2020: https://bit.ly/3Ob7Lk6
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