Why some kids always choose ‘Option D’

I am tired of newspaper reports of surveys showing that children think that food comes from the supermarket, and that 6% of them think that sausages grow on trees. It’s an easy headline grab to promote yet another scheme that will supposedly help overcome this crisis of public understanding.

But the problem is, there is no crisis, just an opportunity to engage minds, young and old, in what we believe to be a topic of vital importance.

You see:

  1. There are a lot of things children don’t know. They are children. And a headline like this will not shock a teacher or parent into doing something about it, because this fact just joins the long list of things that children don’t know.
  2. In fact, there are a lot of things adults don’t know either, and as the world gets steadily older and we discover new things all the time, there are an increasing number of things that we don’t (personally) know.
  3. And learning is often driven by need. If you have never needed to know (you don’t eat sausages, you have never been short of sausages, ….) then why should you be expected to know? There are more important, or at least urgent things to be wrapping your mind around.
  4. If you ask multiple choice questions about where sausages come from, and give them an option ‘D – grow on trees’, some kids will naturally tick this. Why? It would have appealed to me as a 9 year old to give the ludicrous answer. Or maybe they just weren’t concentrating, or perhaps they have dyslexia.

But you can be sure, 6% of children do not think sausages grow on trees. They may not fully appreciate their provenance, but if you ask the right questions, not only can you test the explicit knowledge, but you can also encourage critical thinking and exploration, and tease out their tacit knowledge which may lead to the same result.

Why does it matter? Surely a headline is a good thing? All publicity is good publicity, and all that.

Well the problem is twofold.

One, it trivialises the issue and limits it to one of basic knowledge. Unless children, and their parents and teachers are convinced of the ‘why’ – ‘WHY does this matter?’, they won’t be interested in the ‘whats’. Of far greater importance, I would argue, is whether children are even interested or engaged in the issues of food, provenance and the environment. And whether they have access to the learning experiences that will foster this interest. Asking around teaching colleagues following the general election suggests that they aren’t. These issues were frequently voted lowest of all the issues that children thought were important for politicians to think about.

Two, the headlines are an insult to children’s intelligence, and undermines the great work that parents, teachers and many organisations like my own do. And the first rule of persuasion is, “Don’t insult your audience!”. If teachers, parents (and children) are the people whose interests and behaviours we would like to change, then we need to appeal to their sense of WHY this matters. WHY is it that knowing how food is produced matters? Because it’s part of a healthy relationship to food that will reduce long-term obesity and heart disease? Because getting outdoors and connecting with plants and animals is good for learning and wellbeing? Because as a country we are only 62% self-sufficient? And as a global population the next generation will need to find some very creative ways of ensuring they and their fellow citizens have enough to eat? And that if they don’t the consequences don’t bear thinking about?

Surely there are some good headlines here?

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