Rumour Mill

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Should we encourage rumours in school?

I like conflict, cognitive conflict that is. Any classroom strategy that promotes thought friction gets my vote and one of my favourites is ‘rumours’.

Educational rumours have the potential to create conflict because they contain an in-built tension that are ripe for discussion. Starting a rumour is easy too: take some content, mix in some mischief, serve and walk away.

Here’s a few examples of some maths rumours,

  • “I heard a rumour this morning that when you multiply two numbers together you always get a larger number”
  • “I heard a rumour in the staffroom that a rectangle has four lines of symmetry”
  • “I heard a rumour in the playground that the next number after 5.8 is 5.9”

In each of these rumours there is a deliberate element of ambiguity planted inside. The idea behind them is to use them as talking points to stop any malicious maths acting as obstacles to full understanding. Each rumour embeds a misconception which unless challenged can lead pupils down a road that might get them lost. For example,

  • multiplying two numbers together doesn’t always result in a bigger number. The maths gossip here might be spreading the wrong idea because multiplying by zero will always result in zero. Multiplying by 1 doesn’t make it bigger and what about negative numbers? -8 x 4 = -32
  • A rectangle does have four lines of symmetry if it is a square rectangle but it only has 2 lines of symmetry if it is an oblong rectangle.
  • The next number after 5.8 could be 5.9 but there are an infinite number of decimal numbers in between which need to be considered as well, e.g. 5.81, 5.845, 5.867397 etc

Rumours can provoke disagreements between pupils but through renegotiation, refinement and redefinition as part of a rich discussion, entrenched misconceptions can be avoided. Rumours help pupils see through a statement and read between the lines.

What’s The Goss?

Rumours are basically short statements that contain some element of truth but they aren’t completely accurate; they need challenging. If the rumours aren’t confronted with some face to face discussions and some extra deep thinking then the rumour can get out of hand and perpetrate some ‘wrong’ ideas.

Rumour mill activities are effective across the curriculum and involve presenting pupils with some subject gossip that they have to unpack, analyse, investigate and test. The statements you present don’t always have to contain an element of truth either. You may decide to present rumours that are 100% full fat misconceptions. There is no ‘best’ way of presenting rumours but nuggets of gossip that contain a thorn in the side work well because they get pupils thinking and discussing which then leads to a learning conversation.

Rumours are a powerful way for pupils to unearth their own thinking and to confront their own misconceptions. They encourage pupils to do a conceptual double-take and look again at ideas they perhaps didn’t realise were faulty, inaccurate or incomplete.

Rumour Has It  

Planting a few rumours into a lesson can be a dynamic opportunity to help pupils begin working together to ‘professionalise’ a response. By discussing together they can test the validity of a statement, compare and contrast ideas, muster evidence and then present their reasoning to the rest of the class.  Of course, pupils might not necessarily arrive at an ‘answer’ themselves which is where we come in by acting as devil’s advocate, prompting an alternative example, prodding a bit more reflection and nudging children towards asking their own rich questions. The idea is to act as a bit of sandpaper and to start rubbing a few thoughts together.

Rumours need to be handled with care because by their very nature they are fragile and vulnerable. If you do use this strategy then it’s a good idea to just look at one or two so that there is sufficient time in a lesson to unwrap and analyse them properly. The last thing you want is for pupils to leave the classroom with the very misconceptions you were aiming to confront.

Where’s The Evidence?

Rumours are great ways of helping pupils develop their knowledge and understanding because they often involve statements they might have quite fixed ideas about.

Rumours encourage more fluidity and support pupils in their ability to make reasoned arguments based on finding evidence. Acting as investigators, pupils can separate the fact from the f(r)iction, find the holes, debunk any myths and stop the rot.

It is a surprisingly sophisticated strategy because pupils have to tease out what they know, search for options and replacements and as a result often reformulate their own thinking because the discussions they have can often take them in unpredictable and surprising directions.

Prototypical and stereotypical ideas live inside rumours so it is important we don’t leave them to fester peddling misinformation.

Should we use rumours in class? Absolutely and I suggest you start some of your own as soon as possible. You can’t beat a bit of thought friction so spread the word and speak your mind.

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