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In the age of fake news, teachers in every subject area should redouble their efforts to help students distinguish between credible and deceptive sources of information. 

By Maribeth D. Smith 

All consumers of information must be able to distinguish fact from opinion and recognize any bias, including one’s own, that may influence the quality or depth of understanding what we are reading or hearing. For this reason, these skills are staples of the language arts and social studies curricula. Yet, with new forms of misinformation emerging, parents, educators, and policy makers are asking: Do current school curricula and teaching provide an adequate defense against the onslaught of misleading, unsubstantiated, or fake news?

Encountering unreliable or just plain false information, and even having it affect the national political agenda, is not a new phenomenon (e.g., consider the yellow journalism of the late 1880s). Historians point out that fake news, a recent term for fictitious claims and “evidence” designed intentionally to mislead, can be documented as early as the first printing press. So why does it seem so alarming now?

First, communications are more rapid, more instantly available to more people, and less and less filtered. Additionally and unfortunately, more misinformation crafted for malicious or nefarious reasons is making its way onto social media sites and into public discourse. A recent study at Stanford University found that young people’s abilities to reason about information found on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak (Stanford History Education Group, 2016). While “digital natives” are able to move between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a “selfie” and texting a friend, when it comes to evaluating information on social media channels, they are easily duped.

According to the Stanford study, regular practice with reading, analyzing, and evaluating information may be the best defense against sinking into misinformation bogs, which means that teachers need to provide regular opportunities for students to think about and evaluate information harvested from a variety of sources, to learn to recognize their own vulnerabilities to disinformation, and to look beyond sources that reinforce their existing beliefs.

We need to help students develop and practice the requisite knowledge and skills to recognize and fight back against the proliferation of fake news.

But just how prepared are the nation’s schools to help students learn these skills and habits? And what resources and tools are available to teachers who see this as a priority?

  • College- and career-readiness standards. For English language arts, social studies, and science teachers, some basic tools and strategies can be found in the academic standards that many states have adopted and implemented in recent years. These curricula promote argument as the seminal mode of discourse to prepare students for college-level studies and for the workplace. When well-implemented, argumentation can also provide a buttress against misinformation. By reading and writing arguments, questioning, thinking critically, and evaluating evidence, students are developing the fundamentals to defend themselves against misinformation in all of its forms.
  • The internet itself. Students should have frequent opportunities to apply their critical thinking and argumentative skills to the kinds of information that they encounter online every day. Teachers in all subject areas, including math and science, should guide students in analyzing a range of news and information sources, including dubious material as well as legitimate sources from their respective disciplines.
  • Librarians. Students and teachers have some determined and formidable allies in professional librarians. Public, local school, and university librarians — who have always considered the defense of credible, trustworthy, and well-documented information their primary calling — are pulling together and posting many of their resources and services for teachers and students, as well as for parents and the general public. The American Library Association promotes a heuristic protocol developed and recently updated by California State University, Chico. Known by the acronym CRAAP, it helps students address currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose in the information they encounter. For each of these traits, there are questions that students and other consumers of information can ask themselves about the information they are reading and using.

Why should schools vigorously address media-sourced information with students? Even if the political heat around fake news recedes, which doesn’t appear likely, allowing unsubstantiated or biased information to stand unchallenged is harmful in itself. People may believe it and act on it, in some cases harming themselves or others. They may also come to distrust and/or disregard authentic information needed to carry out their civic duties as informed citizens, thereby harming our democracy. More immediately for students, their own reputations or grades can suffer by letting their research or school work fall prey to questionable evidence.

With so much at stake, we need to help students develop and practice the requisite knowledge and skills to recognize and fight back against the proliferation of fake news. And schools — with their communities of teachers, librarians, and parents — are our first line of defense.

K1711_Smith_56_tbl1 Reference

Stanford History Education Group. (2016). Evaluating information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning. Palo Alto, CA: Author.

MARIBETH D. SMITH (msmith@ctacusa.com) is senior project director of professional development, curriculum, and instruction, Community Training and Assistance Center, Boston, Mass. This article originally appeared as a blog post on the web site of the Community Training and Assistance Center (www.ctacusa.com).

Originally published in November 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 56-58. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.