PISA scores were recently released, and results of the international test revealed that only 14 percent of U.S. students were able to reliably distinguish between fact and opinion.
This is particularly alarming because we live in an era when, according to Pew Research Center, 68 percent of American adults get their news from social media—platforms where opinion is often presented as fact. While Facebook and other social media outlets have pledged to tackle fake news, the results are lackluster.
Even on seemingly-serious websites, credibility is not a given. When I was in middle and high school, we were taught that we could trust .org websites. Now, with the practice of astroturfing, responsible consumers of information must dig deeper and go further to verify the legitimacy of information.
As a former middle and high school classroom teacher, my first thought is: What can I do to fix this? With social media so tightly woven into the fabric of society, it is unrealistic to think that I can get people to stop using it to obtain information. And, frankly, I’m part of that 68 percent.
So, if we won’t stop getting information from these sources, what is the next best option? We, as educators and parents, must consider how to make a difference.
We can take on the task of educating our students how to distinguish fact from opinion and how to identify false or biased information.
Neglecting to Teach Information Literacy
As a teacher, I was incentivized to get my students to memorize as many facts as possible so they could regurgitate them on the statewide test at the end of the school year. While I did my best to make the learning engaging, differentiated and rigorous, I knew that a significant portion of my annual evaluation was based on how well my students performed on the test. I was pressed to use my class time for maximum memorization. I didn’t want to risk confusing my students or clouding their memories by giving them anything other than learning experiences that would drill the facts into their minds. I learned to justify my teaching approach by telling myself, “This is what students need to be successful.”
I was partly right—they did need to memorize information to be successful on the test. But now, when I think about the skills and knowledge people need to be well-informed citizens capable of digesting and synthesizing complex information, I wish I could go back and redesign my teaching approach.
For example, my cell structure and function unit would no longer merely ask students to describe the structure and function of cells and organelles. It would help students learn how to use credible sources of information to learn about a scientific topic related to cells. For example, I could ask students to describe how cancer originates and progresses in the body; distinguish between cancer treatments based on their methods, effectiveness, limitations and side effects; identify reasons why cancer is so difficult to treat; and, maybe most importantly, interview doctors.
Another redesigned approach, particularly for a science unit on water, would be one that begins by introducing Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) and the controversy surrounding it. Students can visit this website and research the effects that DHMO has on the environment, cancer rates and even the dairy industry. As students learn more about DHMO online, they are likely to get increasingly upset about its negative effects. Students could even be encouraged to become activists and have their peers, teachers and family sign a petition banning DHMO. Eventually, the strategic reveal that DHMO is just a clever name for water can get students thinking critically about why they allowed themselves to get duped by the fake news website. Thirsty for another example? Do it to them again with the Endangered Northwest Tree Octopus.
Experiences like these, where students are challenged to consider the validity of information and sort what’s real from what’s fake, would better prepare them not only to be savvier consumers of news, but also to someday digest contradictory information to make complicated decisions about their own health care, finances or civic engagement.
How Educators Can Help
My challenge to educators today is to get students to think critically and ask questions about the information they consume. In schools, students tend to receive only facts because of the requirements we place on teachers. This doesn’t prepare students for the real world, where they have to evaluate information and its sources to discern between fact, opinion and bias.
Fortunately, there are many freely available resources to help educators teach how to vet information and think critically about real-world topics. To name a few:
- Common Sense Media has free K-12 curricula and lesson plans to promote digital citizenship.
- KQED has classroom resources like Engineering for Good that support teachers as they bring engineering design (which involves researching and brainstorming solutions) into the classroom, as well as KQED Learn, where students build media literacy and critical thinking skills while researching and discussing contemporary issues.
National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science has free resources for teachers that facilitate research, vetting of information, critical thinking and Socratic discourse among students.
PBL Works has tons of sample problem-based learning units, guides and rubrics that will give your students opportunities to research and vet information while developing solutions to real-world problems.
The New York Academy of Sciences has a free Innovation Curriculum that supports teachers as they get students thinking critically about a topic by asking questions, performing research, interviewing experts, etc.
Additionally, add some research-based instructional strategies to what you’re already doing in your classroom:
Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) is a strategy in which students make a claim, support it with evidence and rationalize how the evidence supports the claim. You can even apply the CER strategy to news or journal articles that you have students read. Ask students to highlight claims in yellow, evidence in pink and reasoning in blue. After that, you can discuss whether the claims are based in fact or opinion.
- Formative assessment strategies can get students practicing ways to verify information. If students set goals for themselves and then monitor their progress toward that goal, require that they provide evidence to support their growth.