Have you heard the news? We have a new four-letter word featuring an “F” and a “K” in our lexicon: It is F-A-K-E. The 2016 Presidential election campaign made fake news one of the hottest topics in—ahem—the news. Shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, “alternative facts” stole the limelight for a brief period, but the fascination with fake news persists. Our focus on fake news, “alternative facts,” and general media mendacity distracts us from a very real educational challenge: teaching students the skills and dispositions that make them careful and thorough researchers. This is hard work, and there are no easy recipes to facilitate the process.
For those who are not in education, the interest in fake news exploded during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Simultaneously, educators were issued an apolitical call to action by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). This group, which brought us the “Reading Like a Historian” curriculum, published its research that measured the capacity of learners, grade six through higher education, to evaluate information. The executive summary for the 2015-16 study, “Evaluating Information: the Cornerstone of Civic Online reasoning,” uses words such as “bleak” and describes researchers’ reaction as “appalled” when describing students’ ability to unpack sources of information and determine fake from real, and fact from propaganda. The study’s designers had to redraft a few of the research instrument’s tasks, because students so drastically underperformed in the pilot.
As a consequence of its findings, SHEG offered the following recommendations to educators:
- Students as early as elementary school must learn how to distinguish online ad content from news content (p. 10).
- Students should learn to question everything they read, hear, and see in the media. For media consumers, healthy skepticism is healthy (p. 17).
- Students should be taught how to consume news delivered through social media outlets (p. 23).
That last point was reinforced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s first of Five Laws of Media and Information Literacy: “Information, communication, libraries, media, technology, the Internet as well as other forms of information providers are for use in critical civic engagement and sustainable development. They are equal in stature and none is more relevant than the other or should be ever treated as such.”
This should be great news (no pun intended) to the 62 percent of Americans who, according to the Pew Research Center, get their news from social media sources.
evidence-based learning isn’t new
The list of people and organizations concerned about students’ ability to make meaning of the flood of information they receive keeps growing. In February 2017, the Civic Engagement Research Group further validated the need to teach media literacy skills in K–12 education. Their study demonstrated that youth who described themselves as having media literacy training were more apt to detect misinformation than those who did not. “In short, the general concern for preparing youth to judge the accuracy of truth claims, such as the broader concern for the democratic purposes of schooling, should not be confined to a single priority such as media literacy. Rather, we believe these findings highlight dynamics worthy of study in multiple domains,” the study concluded.
In a March 27 Washington Post article about confusion among news consumers, Frank Sesno, a former CNN reporter and anchor who now runs George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, was quoted as saying, “One of the dangers is thinking that people know the difference between the editorial page and the front page, between a commentator or pundit commenting on something alongside a reporter who’s supposed to be providing facts. In this environment, when you have news, talking points and opinions all colliding, it can be really disorienting to the audience.”
Emphasizing evidence-based learning is not a new instructional priority. Even before the surge in attention to fake news, evidence-based learning was one of the underlying objectives of the English and Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS), specifically under Reading Standards for Informational Texts’ Integration of Knowledge and Ideas in grades 9–10, which specifies that students should “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.” As controversial as CCSS was, this skill is increasingly a critical one for students to develop.
Recently, Jennifer Lagarde recently asked Michelle Luhtala, co-author of this article, to comment on what it means to be a future-ready librarian. I am certain that my response will rub a few people the wrong way, but I’m holding on to it. I explained that being a future-ready librarian should not be all that different from being a school librarian at any other time so long as we were doing our job right in the first place.
collect, preserve, organize, disseminate
It has always been about learning. My Masters in Information Library Science program taught me that the librarian’s role was to Collect, Preserve, Organize, and Disseminate information (CPOD). While we continue to be called upon for these purposes, we propose that the role of the K–12 librarian is a little different. We are educators, after all. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to fuel inquiry, nurture empathy, promote curiosity, foster skepticism, and empower innovation, while also teaching students to be savvy consumers of the information they seek and receive. The tools change. Our instructional strategies change. But our learning objectives are constant, whether teaching news literacy, promoting independent reading, or leading a maker project.
That’s where this fake news hype is leading us astray. We are focusing on the wrong thing. Recognizing fake news doesn’t even qualify for Band-Aid status on the spectrum of media literacy challenges. Research is a process, and students often get through high school without learning it. They frequently approach research tasks knowing what they “want to say”—and then finding resources that support that. When they do this, they miss the point of research altogether, which is to:
- explore a concept.
- formulate a line of inquiry out of initial discoveries.
- deepen knowledge by investigating multiple perspectives on the subject.
- document developing learning.
- synthesize learning into an original idea.
- articulate and publish that idea.
- incorporate new learning into their knowledge base for reflection and future retrieval and consultation.
At the New Canaan (CT) High School library, we evaluated over 150 bibliographies within the past month, and we noted which mistakes students most commonly made. Twenty percent of our researchers’ bibliographies were largely comprised of reference resources, such as encyclopedias, the World Factbook, atlases, travel guides, country profiles, etc. This trend should be of more concern than the inclusion of fake news articles, which were not present in a single paper.
Teaching students to navigate the research process—by shifting their search strategies and resource types from reference to more granular publications such as scholarly research, statistical data, and primary sources—will help students master the critical thinking skills required to sniff out manipulative information and untruths. In her extraordinary November 26, 2016 “NeverEnding Search” blog post, “Truth, Truthiness, Triangulation: A News Literacy Toolkit For A “Post-Truth” World,” Joyce Valenza advised us to teach “triangulation,” defined as when “researchers establish validity by using several research methods and by analyzing and examining multiple perspectives and sources in the hope that diverse viewpoints will shed greater light on a topic.”
The research process demands inquiry, curiosity, skepticism, and some degree of ingenuity.
Teaching students to recognize their own biases is an essential step in the process of guiding them toward becoming savvy consumers of information. When students ask for help finding a source that is “unbiased,” they signal that they don’t understand what bias is. They must learn to wrestle with and account for bias in their own research and writing. This means recognizing their own outlooks first, so that they can read and view critically, with an open mind to new intellectual possibilities.
So as the media obsessively reports about fake news, let us stay our course. Our instructional responsibilities involve much more than teaching students to recognize fake news. When teachers and administrators prod us to address this “new and urgent” concern, let us remind them that we’ve been doing that and so much more all along.
Sources and related reading
Collinson, Stephen. “An Amazing Moment In History: Donald Trump’s Press Conference.” Cable News Network, Turner Broadcasting System, 16 Feb. 2017.
“Conway: Press Secretary Gave ‘Alternative Facts’.” Meet the Press, National Broadcasting Corporation, 22 Jan. 2017.
Farhi, Paul. “Sean Hannity Thinks Viewers Can Tell The Difference Between News And Opinion. Hold On A Moment.” Washington Post, 28 March, 2017.
Gottfried, Jeffrey, and Elisa Shearer. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016.” Pew Research Center, 26 May 2016.
Grizzle, Alton, and Jagtar Singh. “Five Laws of Media and Information Literacy” Media and Information Literacy: Reinforcing Human Rights, Countering Radicalization and Extremism. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2016.
Jaeger, Paige, and Pfeiffer J’aimé. WISE Inquiry Model Teacher’s Guide, Washington, Saratoga, Warren, Hamilton, Essex Board of Regional Cooperative Educational Services, 2011.
Kahne, Joseph, and Benjamin Bowyer. “Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 54, no. 1, Feb. 2017, pp. 3–34.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and Council of Chief State School Officers. “Reading Standards For Informational Text 6–12.” Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, 2010, p.40.
Ranganathan, S.R. “The Five Laws of Library Science.” Madras Library Association, 1931.
Stanford History Education Group, “Executive Summary.” Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning 22 Nov. 2016.
Michelle Luhtala is the library department chair at New Canaan High School in Connecticut and the community facilitator at edWeb.net/emergingtech, where she presents monthly webinars. She also blogs at bibliotech.me. Before transitioning to library media, Jacquelyn Whiting taught social studies for 23 years, two of them in a 1:1 Chromebook classroom.
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