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Mission Critical: How Educators Can Save Democracy

By Alan November
Mission Critical: How Educators Can Save Democracy

How would you feel if you discovered that your child could not distinguish between fake news and authentic news on the web? According to a year-long study by the Stanford School of Education, across 12 states and 7,800 student responses, the overwhelming majority of our students—from middle schools to universities—were easily manipulated into believing falsehoods on the Internet to be true or credible. According to reporting by NPR about the study, “In exercise after exercise, the researchers were ‘shocked’—their word, not ours—by how many students failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of that information.”
I am not shocked. As I have traveled the country visiting with schools, I have learned that many of our students have a false sense of confidence about their web literacy skills. To help them realize this for themselves, I present them with a search challenge that I know will lead to bogus information in the top page of results. (Most students only look at the top page of results.) The scary part is watching students’ complete ignorance of any framework for questioning the validity of their results.
I want to be wrong about this, but as with the Stanford researchers, I believe we are in serious trouble. Simply put, we are not preparing students to make informed decisions when it comes to Twitter, Facebook, Google searches, or web-based content. Even when students pass our print-based reading tests, they are basically illiterate when it comes to web-based content.
What may surprise you is that our national policy about teaching children to understand critical thinking skills on the web is by design focused on filtering students and automatically prevents them from accessing objectionable material when they are in school. Many schools completely block YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Unfortunately, many of our schools do not balance the need to filter with the need to teach critical thinking or even basic fact checking.
This imbalance cannot continue. No one would argue that we must filter out highly objectionable material. However, the reality of life in a democracy is that the information flowing toward our citizens 24/7 across many digital channels is messy—even nasty—with multiple versions of the truth. The one thing we can count on is that the web will get messier and nastier.
What is really scary is that students, and likely many adults, don’t know what they don’t know. If you believe you are literate, then what would motivate you to question your own assumptions about fact vs. opinion or complete falsehoods, especially if the content arrived via Facebook by a trusted personal friend?
Historically, we did not have to teach our students how to question the validity of information when we ensured the books in the library and in our classrooms were selected by educators. Clearly, providing them exclusively with vetted information is no longer sufficient. Yes, we need to continue to provide our students with high-quality content, but we also need to prepare them for a world that does not have a Dewey decimal number on the book jacket and is in their hands or pocket 24 x 7.
In assessing a traditional essay assignment, we highly value spelling, proper punctuation, proper citation, attribution, the difference between fact and opinion, and the careful step-by-step development of an idea. How much time do we spend teaching equivalent skills when it comes to the Internet?
Just as we ensure that our students do not misinterpret quote signs to be attributable to the main author, perhaps we should also ensure that our students know the simple difference between a modified tweet, a re-tweet, and an original tweet. The Stanford researchers discovered that the majority of students did not click on a link in a tweet when asked to evaluate the validity of the content. While the comparison might be imperfect, this is similar to completely ignoring the value of footnotes embedded in text.
There are also critical thinking strategies that are unique to the web. For example, we should teach our students how to develop a line of inquiry in tracking down a primary source from an opinion on a website.
Google is probably the most popular portal for many of our students who are looking for answers. Students should be taught, but very few know, the “grammar” of using advanced search tools such as limiting results to government sites or universities.
Simply put, our definition of literacy has not kept pace with the reality of digital media. As a society, we need to radically review what we mean by reading proficiency and being literate across various channels of print and digital content. We need a national and local commitment to prepare our students to become critical thinkers in our omnipresent digital world.
It is not difficult to create the standards and write the assessments we need to measure our students’ web literacy skills. Certainly, being able to differentiate between fact and fiction must become a basic tenet of teaching reading across all channels of information. The curriculum to support these skills cannot be limited to a special course or an orientation in the library. As with reading print, web literacy needs to be embedded across the curriculum and within the design of assignments across all grades and subjects. Students need practice, practice, and more practice. The real filters need to be inside their minds.
Hanging on to the semblance that somehow we can control the information our students can access is counterproductive to one of the original tenets of education as described by the Founding Fathers: “Education being necessary to [democracy’s] success, a successful democracy must provide it.”
We are seriously late in preparing our students to intelligently function on the web. We risk losing our democracy if we do not prepare our students with the skills they need to make meaning of the chaos and the noise they encounter online every day.
Alan is an international leader in education technology. He was named one of the United States’ 15 most influential thinkers of the decade by Tech and Learning magazine. Alan has worked with schools and universities in 40 countries to improve learning through innovative practice.
Twitter @globalearner

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