How to talk to pupils about the news

Written by: Tom Bigglestone | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Many teachers would like to use the news to spark great classroom discussions as part of their subject teaching, but it can be challenging to do well. Tom Bigglestone from the Topical Talk project offers 10 tips for getting it right


Establish the facts

When sharing a news story with your class, lead by example. Use trusted, reputable sources that explain the “what, where, when, why and who”. Don’t be afraid to challenge incorrect or misleading information.

By modelling how to do this appropriately, students will become confident and comfortable doing the same with each other.

Although it may help students to feel safer, avoid telling students that events in the news won’t happen to them, as you cannot guarantee this – keep things in perspective by using easy-to-understand statistics where necessary.


Start from what they know

Start from where your students are at: ask them what they know already and go from there. Consider using analogies or fictional parallels to aid their understanding. The Topical Talk project (see further information) uses an example of a squirrel hiding their acorns that explains tax-avoidance and money-laundering as part of our resource on the Pandora Papers.

Once students have shared what they know, don’t feel the need to tell students every detail of a story immediately. Break things down, in the same way you would when teaching other curriculum areas. Drip-feeding information also heightens suspense and leads to more engagement.


Focus on speaking and listening

Get your class to share what they already know with a partner. What questions do they have? Paired and small-group discussions help everyone break their silence and give students a chance to have their say without the pressure of a teacher, or the whole class, listening in.

Encourage students not only to give their own opinions, but to actively listen. Can they respond to what was just said? Can they build on it by giving further examples, or perhaps disagree with it and say why? Can the group recall what the last three speakers said?

Avoid the tendency to echo what a student has said – you risk misrepresenting their point. Encourage loud and clear speaking and put the onus on the rest of the class to hear it first-time, rather than wait for your amplified version.


Explore a range of diverse perspectives

Consider the different voices and perspectives represented in your class. How do views about an issue differ within the room? Show solidarity with potentially marginalised voices and ensure it is not left to any particular student/s to stand up for a minority viewpoint.

Encourage students to look beyond your classroom to the wider community and across the world. Ask how this news story might affect these people – how will it inform their opinions, and what can they learn from that?

This doesn’t mean treating all arguments equally: some might need to be challenged to establish how grounded in evidence they are.


Encourage problem-solving and creativity

News stories are often problems in need of solutions. They might also pose logistical challenges or ethical dilemmas. For example, how do richer countries ensure fair distribution of Covid-19 vaccines? How should countries lower their carbon emissions?

The challenge of solving problems elevates a discussion above just opinion-sharing. Focusing on problems also reminds students that a news story does not just disappear when they have stopped talking about it. Break an issue down into the top two or three problems and have students think of how to resolve them. It can help to think back in history for when similar challenges were faced, or simply start with: “If anything was possible, what could be done?”

The problem-solving need not remain theoretical. Ask students what they could do to contribute to a solution. Popular ways to put thinking into action include writing to their local member of Parliament or delivering a school assembly.


Revisit stories regularly

By nature we are attracted to stories, cliff-hangers and unpredictability. So why not harness this natural curiosity and revisit a story over time? There is rarely a “quick-fix” solution to problems in the news so it can be fruitful to go back to see how a situation has changed and catch-up with the twists and turns that even the experts did not see coming.

Engage students by asking them what they predict will happen next and tell them you will come back to it in a week/fortnight to see what has developed.

This also gives your students the chance to spot recurring themes like power, justice and democracy within the same story and make connections between these in different contexts.


Involve parents

Some parents might be concerned about their children discussing some topics or considering viewpoints that are different to those shared at home. If this is the case, explain that their children are exploring a range of different perspectives with an open-mind in order to build the skills to be able to decide on their opinions. Consider sharing content and questions with parents in advance and encourage them to continue the discussion at home. You could introduce “home talk” for homework.


Be comfortable not having an answer for everything

You do not need to have an answer for every question asked. News is ever-changing and you cannot be expected to have up-to-date information on every story. It can be helpful for students to know that you are exploring the topic alongside them.

Your role is to facilitate discussion: to challenge assumptions, correct misinformation and to protect your school’s values. Students will learn there is not an agreed “right” answer in discussions and they won’t always come to a conclusion or solution by the end of the lesson.


Ask the experts

Try to connect students to people with expertise on a news topic. How you do this obviously depends on time available. You could play clips from television interviews from news programmes or look for a student Q&A already recorded online (we interview a group of experts for each Topical Talk project). You could even invite a speaker into school. Many charities who campaign for causes regularly in the news offer speakers, often just for the cost of expenses.


Give it a name and a time

If you want to unlock the value of talking about the news, designate a regular spot on the timetable. Give this time a name, to set it apart from other activities. This will automatically give it an identity in the children’s minds and they will remind you if you forget to do it.

  • Tom Bigglestone is a former head of humanities and is now online learning manager at the Economist Educational Foundation, a charity which runs the Topical Talk project. Visit https://talk.economistfoundation.org/


Further information & resources

  • Topical Talk provides planned lessons that make complex stories accessible for students aged from nine upwards. Weekly resources explore the world’s most pressing issues – from racial equity to the climate crisis. Download them for free at https://talk.economistfoundation.org/


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