Last week, a new study from Stanford University revealed that many students are inept at discerning fact from opinion when reading articles online. The report, combined with the spike in fake and misleading news during the 2016 election, has school librarians, including me, rethinking how we teach evaluation of online sources to our students. How can we educate our students to evaluate the information they find online when so many adults are sharing inaccurate articles on social media?
While social media isn’t the only reason for the surge in fake news over the last 10 years, it’s certainly making it harder for information consumers of every age to sort through fact and fiction. As articles about the Stanford study get shared around Facebook, I have two thoughts. One, I have to teach this better. And two, as information literacy experts, we school librarians are more important than ever. Joyce Valenza offers timely tools in her news literacy toolkit for a “post-truth” world.
Until now, I have taught web evaluation the same way every year: I start by introducing students to the CARS method of web evaluation (similar to the CRAAP test), using tools to evaluate credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, and factual support. I offer up sites for them to evaluate (all fake, such as Save the Guinea Worm, DHMO, and Mankato, MN). Many kids figure out that the sites are fake, and that leads to a discussion about how publishing on the web is different from print. “Fake News vs. Real News: Determining the Reliability of Sources,” from the New York Times has many examples of fake posts on social media, as well as lesson ideas.
In follow-up lessons, we use the CARS strategy to evaluate other websites in order to rank their usefulness. I teach students about websites such as Snopes.com and Politifact.com, resources to fact-check Internet rumors and sensational “news” they see. In addition, we spend some time looking at domain names and URLs.
I end the unit with a presentation and discussion of the reliability of information from news sources I gathered during a two-week teacher training workshop I attended at the Center for News Literacy Summer Institute at Stony Brook University. My presentation runs through how the dissemination of the news has changed over time, our current challenges in a world of information overload, and the blurring of the meaning of “journalist” in an era of social media and blogs. All this takes around four to five lessons, which I teach in my stand-alone sixth grade library skills class (I see students once every six-day cycle).
Rethinking how we teach evaluation
Teaching evaluation of information has never been so critical, and I’m thinking fast while updating my unit before relaunching it in January. Students can’t rely on “about us” pages of websites any longer. While educating them about how to evaluate websites that look accurate and mimic the news, I’ll focus on these four points.
Read laterally. I’ll spend more time teaching students how to Google or crosscheck an organization or “news” source or claim before believing or sharing information found online. “Reading laterally” in this way helps them discover if a source is biased or even completely fake. I can emphasize this as part of the CARS method, asking questions such as, “Is the author an authority on the subject?” and “Does the information on the site agree with other sources?”
Keep it non-political. So many current examples from the 2016 election season are hot-button issues that may open discussions we aren’t ready for in our classrooms. I have found Snopes to be a good source for non-political examples of inaccurate web content. For example, here is a completely fabricated article about Clint Eastwood rejecting the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Talk about social media more. The pitfalls of social media can’t be ignored, and we have to discuss rules for sharing or re-sharing articles. I like the “triple check” rule from CNN’s Brian Stelter. Lesson 13 from the Center for News Literacy teaching materials has some good examples from Hurricane Sandy and other news events when inaccurate social media posts were overshared.
Switch it up. An alternate way to evaluate sources that I’m considering teaching my students is the IMVAIN method. It might be a better fit now than CARS, given how our news sources are changing. Here’s an example of how a New York City middle school uses it.
The IMVAIN analysis weighs the following factors:
- Is the material Independent or self-interested?
- Does it have Multiple sources or only one?
- Does it Verify, or assert?
- Is it Authoritative/Informed vs. uninformed?
- Are sources Named or unnamed?
Embracing the opportunity
As challenging as it is to teach about web evaluation without getting political, I can’t help but see this as an opportunity. In a time when school librarian positions are still being cut or undervalued around the country, this is a chance to talk about how critical our role really is. We have a chance to not only share our expertise with teachers in our schools, but also to show our personal networks on social media that this is what school librarians do; this is what we teach, and this is why every school needs a school librarian. We show students how to evaluate information in a world of information overload.
When I speak at my state’s ESSA hearing next week, I will say that this is a large part of why my role is valued in my school. The town I live in does not have any school librarians in the district; the position was considered expendable because of all the resources on the Internet. But given the current state of affairs, perhaps people will finally see what we have known all along…that we’re more important than ever.
2016 SLJ School Librarian of the Year finalist Laura Gardner is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media, a teacher librarian at Dartmouth (MA) Middle School, and a 2016 Touchcast Ambassador. She tweets at @LibrarianMsG, and you can follow her library on Instagram and Snapchat at @DMSLibrary366.
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