Students and voters alike have been encountering fake news since long before the 2016 election. But in recent years social media has increased the volume and spread of misinformation, a phenomenon that is increasingly problematic for our civic discourse and our complex democracy.
If the goal of public education is to prepare our students for their lives as engaged and informed members of their communities, we must adjust our curriculum to include an analytical framework to critically evaluate the myriad digital news sources that students encounter on a daily basis.
Here are some resources and techniques that teachers can use to teach critical thinking and media literacy skills across grade levels and subjects.
Civic Online Reasoning: The Stanford History Education Group created a set of free resources that all teachers can print and share. Students are shown Facebook posts, YouTube videos and tweets and asked to determine their bias, reliability and credibility.
What I love most about the Stanford History Education Group’s material is that it reflects the real world. We must meet students where they are. Students will encounter this type of online content outside the classroom and they can be taught how to evaluate it. The activities prompt students to ask who’s behind the information and what the evidence is. These activities will motivate them to become more vigilant and aware when consuming digital news.
Guiding questions and modeling: Good instructional techniques can help students develop the skills necessary to detect fake news. I will take a news article and ask my students to identify its purpose, what it wants the reader to do, how it makes the reader feel and what its overt or implied values are.
Engaging in such an assessment as a whole-class activity not only helps to develop a stronger classroom community, but it also helps students see how news can be interpreted in multiple and competing ways. Their own differing reactions to the news can help students realize how media can serve as both a uniting and a dividing force in our communities.
Practice recognizing the difference between fake and real news: Showing students both fake and real news about a historical or current event can be an innovative way to teach content, especially if students are examining excerpts from secondary texts, primary documents and images aligned to a traditional curriculum.
It can also be a way to teach students about their own biases. I coach students to resist the impulse to instantly share or retweet content of dubious origin. I tell my students, “Just because you agree with something does not make it real.”
Journalism vs. political commentary: Distinguishing between opinion and news is hard for students, and even many adults continue to struggle with it. While we live in politically divisive times, the lens through which we read an op-ed or a blog post should be different from the lens through which we read a news article. The same holds true for listening to a political commentator versus watching a news segment on TV. All of this content can be helpful in shaping our understanding of the world, but in each encounter with content, we must question the aim in producing it and the reliability of the source.
Helping students understand the legwork that goes into reporting, writing and editing a newspaper on a daily basis will also give them a better appreciation for journalists and the work they do.