My family regularly says “fake news” as a joke when someone tells them something they don’t want to hear. For example, telling my little brother that he’s had enough screen time is promptly followed by an exclamation of “fake news!” even as he begins to shut everything off. He knows it is, in fact, true. The prominence of this phrase in the media, its overuseage, and the hilarity of some of the fake news out there has made it somewhat of a joke to us.
However, “fake news” is not a joke, especially when many take them as truth, and it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish the lies from the truth. I failed this quiz about
finding the fake headlines. Some of the headlines are absurd, yet some are more reasonable than the real news headlines, making it almost impossible to sort out the fake ones without having an extensive background knowledge of all the scientific advancements, political scandals, global achievements, and other, extremely specific knowledge of what’s happening in the world. This made me question whether I could even teach my students about digital literacy, when I was obviously extremely lacking.
However, I had to remind myself that I had the headlines completely out of context. I didn’t have the articles in front of me, and thus, could not evaluate their credibility, which is the foundation of digital literacy.
Providing our students with the skills necessary to stay safe online is not only vitally important, it can also be seen as a part of the curriculum. As a student in the elementary education program, I focused specifically in the Kindergarten through Grade Five outcomes, but teaching digital literacy can be seen throughout, especially in the older years. It ties into multiple subject areas, however especially into the second Comprehend and Respond outcome for all grades (CR_.2), allowing us to gradually build on their understandings by introducing new things to look for when evaluating sources. The indicators for this outcome (pulling from every grade level) mentions things like being able to distinguish between fact and opinion; discuss purpose, perspectives, and biases; understanding the use of visuals to focus attention of specific events or details to influence opinion; identifying intent of media; describing messages that are promoted in different forms of media; distinguishing between advertisements and authentic programs; recognize how feelings are portrayed; and constructing meaning. As you can see, digital literacy is a huge part of the Saskatchewan ELA curriculum. (For more information, see: Kindergarten, Grade One, Grade Two, Grade Three, Grade Four, and Grade Five curriculum outcomes.)
Unfortunately, a large portion of our students do not seem to possess this form of critical thinking. This becomes even more complicated due to the large variety of different types of misleading news (also see: Dynamic Landscapes)- it seems impossible to keep up with the latest trends to keep our students informed. Yet, it is because of this that teaching digital literacy is all the more important. In order to include this competency in an authentic, safe way in our classroom, there are a number of approaches we can take.
To begin these discussions with younger students, we can use storybooks as an introduction to distinguishing between real and fantasy. By doing so, we are ensuring that students understand the concepts of real and unreal, before trying to move to real-world, and often more complicated issues.
Putting up posters around the classroom as reminders to evaluate their sources is another good way to start. To deepen their understanding though, you could make a poster as a class, listing some steps to take and things to watch out for. Doing this allows students to engage with the steps at the base level, before applying them, making it more likely that they’ll remember to use them.
If we want our students to develop this competency, we have to give them opportunities to do so. Rather than only providing trustworthy sources during class, provide a wide variety of resources (both on and off-line) for students to engage with. Give them a chance to read and ingest the information, and allow them to critique it on their own or in small groups, before facilitating classroom discussions that look to evaluate the authenticity of the resource, what messages it conveys, whether it helps or harms people, and who is writing it and for what purpose (there is so much more that can be discussed as well, these are just some general questions to get started). By allowing them to regularly engage with both real and fake articles, they will start to see the difference, and how difficult it sometimes is to spot the fake news. Because misleading information is constantly evolving in its ability to look real, making it even harder to spot, we need to make sure students are capable of questioning what they are being told and are critical of everything they read.
Similarly, we need to show students how to evaluate their own biases and beliefs, and how this effects their likelihood to trust something. A huge factor in whether we think something is a fact or an opinion is our own beliefs – if it doesn’t agree with our own philosophy, we are more likely to say it’s incorrect or subjective, and possibly outright refuse to believe any new information that is provided. Showing students their own biases or how the news they get is filtered in concrete ways can be a huge help. Using PolitEcho, have students critique their FaceBook news feed, and show them how what they like and who they follow shapes what they are shown. Since I don’t use FaceBook other than for messenger, there was no information about my news feed. However, it was interesting to see where my “friends” fell, and how this could shape my feed if I choose to be more active in the future.
Teaching students to use certain tools (such as Politifact, Snopes, FactCheck.org, and Sweet Search) can help them to sort out the real news from the misleading or fake news. I used Sweet Search, and then Googled the same thing after, to see how different the results would actually be. While there were definitely some similarities, Sweet Search seemed to focus more on the news articles, and less on symptoms or certain political leaders speeches about COVID-19. It also didn’t have all the warnings and alert messages about the topic. While these may be useful in some situations, students who are trying to research a current event, or who are trying to find facts to combat their fear surrounding an issue, may find that Sweet Search provides fewer distractions. Moreover, I chose to search something that is huge right now, which means that there is a concerted effort by Google to provide more reliable information for the top results. If I had chosen something less current, and less popular, I may have had less carefully filtered results.
While I focused on the ELA curricular competencies that tie in with digital literacies, there are connections to every subject. Following the goals of the NCTE framework: “If we are to blend creative thinking and critical writing skills, students must be afforded opportunities to synthesize information they already have with knowledge acquired through higher education. Composition courses can provide this link.” Moving beyond ELA, students can apply the skills they have learned (about being critical of and evaluating sources) to other subject areas, such as Science, Math, Social Studies, and learning a language. Then, they can share the knowledge they have gained:
“An opportunity to practice communication of complex concepts that they encountered in their science and math courses. Using digital tools (e.g., Blackboard and mobile devices), students demonstrated their comprehension and interpretation skills through presentations, blogs, reports, and discussion forums…the emphasis shifted from passive communication to interactive research and delivery underscoring performative language…students learned that delivering inaccurate information is dangerous. It’s not enough to be connected; we need to be accurate in our knowledge through these connections” (Fournel & Khawaja, 2015).
This works with the curriculums goal of creating “cross-curricular competencies.” By using this approach and having students demonstrate what they have learned across multiple subject areas, we can be sure that they fully understand the importance of developing digital literacy, and will use what they have learned outside of the classroom as well.
Teaching digital literacy is not an option – not when the world of information, be it accurate or misleading, is only a couple of button clicks away. Teaching students to be critical thinkers and evaluate where they get their information from may seem impossible, what with the floods of misinformation and constantly evolving methods of distributing it, but it is necessary for their safety and well-being.