In our instant gratification, social media run world, fake news has become an epidemic plaguing the nation and our classrooms.
A year-long study at Stanford University looked at students’ ability to reason about the information on the internet. The results were shocking. “Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media that they are equally savvy about what they find there.” Stanford determined that students were unable to determine the difference between advertisements and news and recognize author’s biases. While this may be shocking to some, inside the classroom teachers are faced with this grim reality every day.
The impact of fake news might have exploded during the 2016 presidential election but teachers have seen students struggle with perspective and bias for years. A colleague of mine, Katie Booth, who teaches AP-level social studies classes, says, “during my decade in AP classroom settings, I’ve always seen students struggle with understanding perspective within primary sources and news articles. I don’t think students’ exposure to inaccurate or slanted news stories makes it more difficult for them to establish veracity or understand bias – that skill has always been hard for them.”
How does she address this in the classroom?
She combats this lack of knowledge with point of view exercises and document-based questions that force the students to recognize the source differences. When asked if the impact of fake news in the classroom was different now than it was when she first started teaching she says, “the sheer volume of false ideas propagated on teenagers does exhaust them. It’s already difficult for many people to see past hype and discern fact; having to do so constantly, even during leisure time scrolling through social media, makes it less likely for students to regularly engage in this difficult mental task.”
Fake news is not just evident in social studies classrooms. Its impact can be seen across disciplines. Kimberlee Zabilka, a science teacher colleague, says she is impacted most by fielding “general misinformation and severely biased sources about major issues in science like climate change and evolution.” Having to stop and explain misconceptions is a part of teaching but fielding questions about obscure stories that flood social media takes a cut out of precious class time. Zabilka argues, “I often have to point out to students that, for example, it is very unlikely that a woman gave birth to a 60 lb. baby just because it was on their Twitter feed.” One way Zabilka combats this is by working on evaluating sources and assessing the credibility of sources throughout the school year.
So what do we do to help our students?
As teachers we can explain fake news until we are blue in the face, but students need to get messy in inquiry and actually deconstruct fake news. Students need the tools to help them identify and combat fake news. The Inquiry Design Model, which is built out of the C3 Inquiry Arc, combines questioning, the analysis of sources to gain knowledge and evidence to build a product that has impact outside of the classroom. I am currently writing an inquiry-based unit to address this concern: “What should we do about Fake News?”
Students will wrestle with the hot topic and take informed action. Beginning with a close look at the current fake news scandals like the Pizzagate incident in DC, this inquiry sucks the students in! Students get messy with the supporting question: “how do we avoid consuming fake news?” Using different protocols from legitimate sites like NPR, students begin to identify what makes news legitimate or fake. The end goal is for students to create a class guide to fake news, which is passed out to classes and kept in the computer labs and libraries.