I’ve been thinking a lot about a discussion we had in form time on Thursday.

One student was explaining the murder in Woolwich to another student: she’d read about it in the Metro that morning (honestly, without the Metro I don’t think my pupils would have any idea about what goes on in the world). The account was vivid and not particularly sensitive, as one might expect from a teenager. I left them to it though: at least they weren’t talking about how many bloody Instagram followers they had, which is the usual intellectual fodder.

At this point, however, Abdi chipped in. “You know it’s all a conspiracy. David Cameron organised it”. Abdi is Muslim, but I don’t think this statement was driven by his religion – though that’s hard to know. Abdi’s a popular boy, and there were murmurs of agreement from a lot of the class.

I started feeling uncomfortable with this turn of conversation, but acutely aware of how easily I could alienate the predominately Muslim class as a white teacher. I started some simple Socratic questioning to tease out what exactly Abdi meant. The accusations that David Cameron organised it became a little less certain. A more sensible discussion about whether it’s fair for the murderers to use the Koran to justify violence, and for the media to call them Islamic extremists emerged. Midway through, my Muslim Head of Year came in, and I asked her to join in the debate, which she did wonderfully sensitively. The students didn’t leave with nuanced political views, by any means, but the conspiracy theories were no longer thoughtlessly spouted.

If only we could have productive discussions like that about all the conspiracies that float round school. The main one is the Illuminati. In some classes I can’t draw a triangle on the board without someone in the class shouting out “ILLUMINATI”! As you can imagine, this is somewhat problematic as a maths teacher.

Now, I refuse to waste maths lessons debating Beyonce’s triangle symbolism. So I haven’t talked to the pupils at length about their beliefs. But wry and/or earnest asides about how the Illuminati may not exist are met with outrage. They’ve read WEBSITES on this, don’t you know? Yeah, I can point them to counter arguments on the web, too. But I don’t think that would help. That sucks them further into the rabbit hole. I could try the sort of Socratic questioning I had with my form – but I reckon the Illuminati nonsense is so endlessly repeated and internalised now that that would be too little, too late.

I sense the children really enjoy the feeling of intellectual superiority over their peers, and especially over adults. “I know something you don’t. If you argue against me, I have a pre-prepared convincing-sounding response for you (courtesy of a youtube video)”.

All the conspiracy chat round school makes me roll my eyes. But maybe there are some hidden positives we can squeeze out and utilise for our own purposes. After all, students are enjoying reading and recalling hardcore facts; they are feeling successful in themselves because of intellectual jousting. They care because of its importance in the world – not because it’s made “relevant” to them through rap music.  Those are things that “kids like these” aren’t meant to enjoy. That, if nothing else, is kind of heartening.

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