DENVER–Fake news is a buzzword right now but its impact is far from fake. I teach at a middle school in Denver, Colorado where students are asked to examine a specific topic in depth rather than take individual social studies, English and science classes. Individual curriculum units incorporate all these subject content areas and math, and support students as they learn to research, understand and apply their learning. My students dig deeply into their topics and calibrate information to form an understanding that they can defend with facts. Fake news is getting in the way of that understanding, and instead is teaching my students one very important and dangerous thing: they can’t trust anything.
When tweets reduce news points to 140 characters, there’s not much space for substantiation. Kids learn quickly to research by image because there’s likely an infographic that distills data into a picture that can be easily quoted. Anyone can produce an article that looks credible but has no real data or presents biased information. Memes spew statistics and chopped quotes into viral weapons of partial instruction. Tweets, infographics and memes may present some information but it’s not complete or complex and often takes the place of vital critical thinking.
There is also a glut of information; an Internet search can bring millions of results in less than two seconds. For some students this is a bonanza – a few clicks and you have a cited paper that drops appropriate keywords and concepts but doesn’t really say anything. It’s not good thinking, it’s not real understanding, and instead of learning to work, students are learning to work the system.
Josh*, 13, likes to find the shortest way through a research project. With a question about the correlation between cities’ economic stability and the quality of grocery stores, he presents charts and graphs of the richest and poorest U.S. cities, types of stores in the U.S. and demographic information from the most recent census. It looks great. However, it does not connect the information or draw conclusions about what it shows. In fact, the information really doesn’t connect at all. He’s more interested in checking the box that an assignment is done than in getting it done well, and the internet makes that very easy for him to accomplish. Many kids have packed schedules, moving them from school to sports to community service so their resumes can prove they are well-balanced; there is no time to do your best. There’s only time to get it done.
For other students, research and verification inhibits time for real thought. There is so much information available, there’s no way to prove data is accurate without careful, and time-consuming, fact-checking. Andie*, 13, has long brown hair and is learning how to apply makeup and flirt with boys. She has an overwhelming drive to make sure her work is perfect, so she spends her time confirming facts and sources. But even with all her effort, she feels like can’t be certain that anything she’s reading is accurate because her sources conflict so frequently. The time she spends verifying takes the place of time she could spend creating understanding.
Tom* is 14. He may be a perfect specimen of the middle school boy: smart and sensitive and a little unsure of himself. His unit assignment had him trying to understand the pros and cons of background checks for guns. After hours of research and writing, he turned in a well-written and carefully cited paper that decried background checks as contrary to individual rights. This fit with what his family believes and bounced around the echo chamber of confirmation bias. I pointed this out and suggested he research other perspectives to get some balance.
Tom spent more time researching, then came back and said he couldn’t do what I had asked him to do. Everything he found was so biased one direction or the other, it was impossible to sort out what is fact and what is opinion. There wasn’t even a starting point for understanding. I suggested he find what they have in common and start there.
He ended up writing a paper on mental health because it was the only thing he found that both sides could agree was a factor. His paper wasn’t about mental health as it applies to gun rights. Just mental health, as a general topic, because he couldn’t process confirmed information about background checks in the time he had available to complete this assignment. While Tom learned many statistics about mental health in America, all he learned about background checks for guns is that the subject is frustrating and incomprehensible. It was a wasted opportunity to confront a complex topic because of an overload of biased information from both sides that left a gap of understanding in the middle.
Even teaching students to evaluate sources is a problem. If Andie’s parents take their news from Huffington Post, her sense of what is real is different from Tom’s, whose parents take theirs from Fox News. Can I say one is accurate and the other not? Encyclopedias are dinosaurs and Wikipedia can be edited by anyone for any reason. A few years ago, as a part of a lesson on evaluating sources, I edited a specific Wikipedia page that had content my students might be able to use, adding a non-existent book by a non-existent author, giving them non-existent information which would have been debunked with a simple cross-check of either book or author. This source was cited in about half the papers I received the next day. While my intentions were to prove that Wikipedia is a fine place to start research and a lousy place to end, the point is the same: Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, regardless of their understanding or credibility, but it’s frequently the first response on a Google search. Students have access to everything from academic journals and the wide spectrum of news sources to good old books and mainstream periodicals, but information is interpreted by editors, newscasters, and experts and is rarely consistent from one source to the next.
I teach my class to verify information by clicking the About section of any website to confirm its source, by checking the author’s credentials with an internet search, and by using multiple keywords to ferret out different perspectives or hidden information. Yes, it takes longer but it is now a part of responsible research, and it puts the power of thinking back in the students’ hands.
Tari St. Marie lives in Denver, Colorado and geeks out on grammar and history on a regular basis. She’s been teaching elementary and middle school students for 14 years.
Featured Image: Shutterstock.