In the fifteen months since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, I, like many of the other English and Social Studies teachers I work with, have been seam-ripping my curriculum, fueled half the time by a sense of profound duty, half the time by a crisis of faith. Our job is to teach the public how to read the news, follow current events, sort truths from half-truths, misrepresentations, and lies. To form citizens, in short. On the day after the nation at large failed its media literacy test at the ballot box, those of us that hadn’t wandered off campus in a fugue state with the last bell gathered in an empty classroom with walls still lined with students’ Pro / Con posters about local ballot measures to sit around a bag of stale tortilla chips and look stricken. Somehow, we had botched it up terribly and were just realizing that we — ok, let me be perfectly clear here, I — had no idea what we were doing.
Presidential election years always carry a special buzz in Social Studies classrooms, but what we observed in the runup to the 2016 election was different and unsettling, as 12-year-olds showed up for class conversations with bizarre rumors and nihilistic memes we felt ill-equipped to disarm and disturbing, racist speech ricocheted around student social media. Despite our earnest efforts, we have still not caught up to where we need to be when it comes to teaching students digital media literacy.
This election came during a period of huge investment in technology and "21st Century Learning" by schools, so our failure to impart digital literacy and civic skills hasn’t been for lack of access or attention to technology. As Natasha Singer documented in the New York Times series Education Disrupted, tech companies have been enormously successful at placing their products in schools. Like every other teacher I know, I’ve scrambled not only to integrate new technology and media into my instruction but also to adapt to new pedagogies being rolled out with them. Singer describes the pedagogical shift that accompanies digital technology into schools as, “a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas.” In schools with wired classrooms what this often looks like is students spending less time receiving direct instruction from their teachers and more time with screens, working through material or on educational games and projects, or gathering information online.
If you attended elementary school even 10 years ago, at some point, perhaps in third or fourth grade, your teacher probably held up a newspaper, smudging her fingertips as she explained to you in simple language the difference between news, opinions, and ads. Elementary school students today, who spend much more time in front of screens than the average 8-year-old of yore ever spent reading the Times, and who are likely to see ads, misleading webpages, propaganda, and disinformation even in the course of their school-assigned work, receive no similar basic training.
As much as I want and need my students to use the internet for research, it is troubling how often doing so only compounds misunderstandings. At the National Social Studies Conference this past November, Professor Sam Wineburg, head of the Stanford History Education Group, presented research confirming what I and other classroom teachers had been whispering about but couldn’t prove: that the critical thinking skills and habits of mind we emphasize in our content areas are not transferring to online spaces.
To the extent that teachers and librarians have been training students to spot "fake news" and evaluate websites, we have been doing so using an outdated checklist approach that does more harm than good. Checklists — such as this one created by the News Literacy Project, the CRAAP test, and “The Five Criteria For Web Evaluation” — provide students with long lists of items for them to check off to verify a website as credible, but many of the items on the list can be poor indicators of reliability and even mislead students into a false sense of confidence in their own abilities to spot a lie.
Common Sense Media’s lesson on online media literacy, for instance, contains 30 questions for identifying high-quality sites. The questions are grouped into five categories—Purpose of the Site, Trustworthiness of the Author, Usefulness of the Information, Up-to-Date Information, and Ease of Use—and include questions that range from helpful common-sense ("Are sources given for statistics?") to ones that are subject to manipulation by bad actors (“Is the site’s domain .edu, .org, or .gov?”) to ones that are mystifying in their relevance (“is the site free of advertising?” “Is there a ‘What’s New’ feature?”).
At the conference, Wineburg played the audio recording of a student verbalizing her thought process as she formed a judgement on the trustworthiness of a website for the “American College of Pediatricians.” She was part of a study where college students were asked to examine a statement about bullying in schools on the website for validity. Going point by point on the checklist, she, like her peers, failed to see that the organization that created the site was actually a Southern Poverty Law Center-identified hate group that promotes conversion therapy for LGBT youth. She arrived at her erroneous conclusion not by ignoring what she’d been taught, but by following instructions exactly.
One reason checklists are counterproductive is that they train students to spend a large amount of time examining a website that may be slickly designed to mislead or obscure its agenda, as in the case of the American College of Pediatricians or astroturfed websites that appear to be grassroots efforts but are funded by industry consortiums, when, as advertisers know, keeping eyes on the page is more than half the battle, and students would be better served by opening a new tab and searching for what third parties have to say about the website or organization. In fact, when the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) researchers looked at the online literacy practices of professional fact-checkers this is exactly what they found the fact-checkers did. Opening new tabs, scanning search results several pages deep, and exercising restraint at clicking internal links were a few of the practices that helped fact-checkers quickly and accurately take stock of unfamiliar websites.
Given the tumult of the news cycle in late 2016, it is understandable how a report put out in late November of that year by SHEG, a division within its Graduate School of Education, might have been overlooked. But anyone still self-soothing with the thought that it’s primarily adults, their brains addled by Fox, recklessly incompetent at the civic skills required to keep democracy even limping along, ought to be chastened by what the report says. “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Online Civic Reasoning” detailed the depressing results of 18 months of research into young people’s digital media literacy.
According to the study’s authors (one of whom was Wineburg), across income levels and educational environments, in beleaguered urban school districts and well-resourced suburban ones, the ability of so-called "digital natives" to reason through the information they encounter online, “can be summed up in one word: bleak.” Eighty percent of middle-schoolers in the study could not distinguish articles from ads labeled “sponsored content.” High-schoolers, when shown an imgur photo depicting weird, double-headed daisies purporting to show the effects of a nuclear meltdown, accepted its claim at face value, with only 20 percent of respondents raising objections about the complete lack of information about the picture’s provenance. Reading the report, I was horrified but not surprised. Yes, my students would get A’s on their ability to produce cool merch promoting their YouTube channels if I graded such things, but when it comes to bringing sound judgement and a critical eye to media they consume, they are babes in the woods.
While it is relief to me to know that fact-checkers’ online practices can be studied, taught, and learned, there is still the matter of getting these skills to children in a systematic way. I talked about this with Jennifer Higgs, a professor of Education at UC-Davis whose research focuses on digital practices in the classroom, and she emphasized that doing this will require an investment in educating teachers, who are themselves often untrained in digital media literacy. Higgs explained that, to date, most professional education for teachers around technology has been about how to use it in the classroom rather than on developing a critical framework for helping students to decipher its messages.
In email, Wineburg wrote, “most students and most teachers have no idea what SEO is. They have utter faith in Google, with little sense of how Google can be gamed.” Teachers need to be better informed in part so they can avoid teaching about the internet in terms of simple binaries—hoax or not a hoax, real news or fake—and instead “teach students to ask probing questions about where all information comes from.”
Higgs also pointed out that there isn’t a clear consensus on “what media literacy actually looks like" and that while critical media literacy is studied in academia, very little of that research filters down to the classroom level, into, “thinking about what to do once the students have [the technology] in their hands. . . [There’s] no professional development geared towards thinking about power.”
And thinking about power — which stories are told and who tells them, whose perspectives go unheard, who gets to frame the conversation, what stereotypes are repeated and reinforced, how media platforms amplify or diminish different voices — is difficult when many classrooms are striving to become a "neutral place," according to Higgs. This may explain why so many teachers and librarians default to the checklist approach, which is both readily available and perceived as skill-focused and politically neutral.
21st Century Education needs to be more than teaching students how to use consumer tools or come up with new ideas for apps. Students need to understand how the internet works and to form a framework for thinking about truth and power. They need to be able to evaluate claims and make judgements about what they encounter online. They need a functioning bullshit detector. Educators can teach these skills now, though not by looking to Silicon Valley to lead the way. Our future depends on it.