I’m a big fan of learning which should be more obvious than it is, because as a teacher it is often easy to become a big fan of teaching. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching too, but I want my students to learn how to learn. I could give my students any number of facts but until they know how to research their own facts or even create their own experiments and ideas, and have ways to independently check the facts I give them, then I’m not sure I have done my job as a teacher thoroughly enough.
The MMR vaccine debacle is a real world example. Here’s a look at the development of the story over the years between 1988 and 2010 from The Independent It is particularly poignant and tragic at April 2006. It seems that thousands of people were unable to grasp the facts and were also unable to check them. It seems that even The Lancet got it wrong by allowing the ‘research’ to be published in the first place.
And here’s a piece from April 24 2013 by the wonderful Ben Goldacre raising a fascinating point about health scares. They are regional! The MMR and autism link was a scare that only happened in Britain and only gained some traction in the States when Andrew Wakefield, the original publisher of the research, moved to live there. Goldacre cites other examples of the regional nature of health scares too.
Why were people in the UK so unable to respond to the facts or even check them?
A text we are discussing at the moment with our GCSE students is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In the play, several girls and one in particular begin a witch hunt in the tiny and religiously zealous community of Massachusetts in 1692. It is of course, an allegory for the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ surrounding Communism in 1950s USA. As more accusations are made, more people are tried and wrongly accused of witchcraft and the situation soon degenerates into chaos. The good people of Salem do not check facts, they do not think independently or clearly; they are swept along by fear.
Most readers assume The Crucible looks back at an earlier age to comment on the time in which it was written, however the play could almost be a foretelling of the MMR debacle. The story continues: the Daily Mail is reporting today that a man in South Wales has died from measles. It reports that the disease is “rife”. The Mail was one of the first papers to spread the fear and superstition about the MMR vaccine back in 2001.
I would like to be able to say that superstition and fear are ultimately replaced if people are educated. It is my aim as a teacher (and a learner!) that this is the case. If students learn to learn, then this aim will become reality more quickly.