This post is Part 2 of a post from earlier this year titled Integrating Research: Part 1
Headlines about misinformation are back in the news and are going to be a hot topic through at least the 2020 election cycle. On Wednesday of this week, Mark Zuckerberg appeared at a Congressional hearing to discuss Facebook’s role in preventing the spread of misinformation through social media. I’m interested to see how Facebook and other social media platforms address it this time around - but I’m also interested in how the public prepares and educates themselves on the topic.
Additionally, this past week was Media Literacy Week, hosted by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). The purpose of Media Literacy Week is to “bring attention and visibility to media literacy.” I can’t think of a better time for emphasizing this skill.
Did it used to be easier to spot? Is it tougher because it doesn’t primarily just show up in publications as we are about to check out at the grocery store? It has definitely gotten more sophisticated. “Deepfakes,” fake videos so realisitic that it’s hard to identify that the speaker never said those words in that order, are predicted to be the next wave of fake news. You may have recently seen this video going around.
Step 1 is awareness. Educators and students should be aware of these “deepfake” videos and understand their potential. Being prepared for college and career means being informed citizens. Democracy and government are stronger with a well educated population – and we love to share what we learn. One study at MIT showed that lies on Twitter spread faster than truth. My guess is awareness goes a long way to prevent the spread of misinformation, but it doesn’t stop how easy it is to see it and retweet it.
So much of evaluating sources comes down to being a critical thinker and using logic to make sense of what your brain takes in as information; whether that’s textual, visual, or in audio form. Here are some tips for improving critical thinking and student’s abilities to evaluate information.
1. Practice asking questions
Part of teaching critical thinking is teaching students how to ask questions - and I’m not referring to asking “Any questions?” after you’ve taught a lesson or given directions in class. Being able to ask relevant questions is an important speaking and listening skill addressed in the Common Core State Standards - and is an essential life skill for critical thinking.
Using something like the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is a great place to start to give students practice asking questions - and better questions. One of the things I like from the very beginning of this technique is how it starts with just asking as many questions as you can. Students then refine and narrow their questions for further research or discussion, but the simple practice of asking questions and encouraging students to question information is essential to develop critical thinking.
2. Pick an acronym. Use it. Often.
In Part 1, I encouraged teachers to have students evaluate sources often and I shared this method for evaluating websites.
Familiarize your students with a method of detecting bias and unreliable information. REAL. CRAAP. TRAAP. SOAPStone. The 5 W’s. WWWDOT. PROVEN. I’m sure I’m missing some. I’m not here to sell you an acronym, but rather encourage you to pick one that works for you, your students, and the situation. There’s a lot of overlap, but developing this practice of evaluating information through a mnemonic device can help students discern the truth more quickly and efficiently. Over time students won't be going through whole checklist in their brain but their brains will be trained to look for certain signs based on these devices.
3. Addressing Conspiracy Theories to Address Media Literacy
Addressing conspiracy theories might be more familiar to science teachers who have had to address issues that may seem more controversial to the public. Although issues like climate change, evolution, and vaccinations aren’t debated by scientists, addressing these issues in class by looking at the facts and identifying misinformation is a valuable practice. Address the issues using research and reliable sources. Other subjects have their own, although maybe not always as current, matters to debate. An ELA classroom may address an old theory like “Did William Shakespeare really write Shakespeare?” In Math, teachers might even want to discuss the mathematics of conspiracy theories this article from the Washington Post titled “Why the Internet’s biggest conspiracy theories don’t make mathematical sense.”
When I tell people outside of education what I do, one of the most common responses is some variation of: “Wow, so you help kids know if stuff is real or fake? I wish I’d had more of that in school.” I have also had a few people then follow up with “So what’s the answer? How can I tell?” There is no one answer, magic spell, or special code to prove information is reliable, but we can't assume students will just develop this skill. Evaluating information is a crucial life skill that must be deliberately taught.
Other resources for reference and teaching:
- College and Career Readiness
- media literacy
- Social Media