Helping Students Spot BS and Decipher ‘Fake’ News

Opinion | 21st Century Skills

Helping Students Spot BS and Decipher ‘Fake’ News

By Todd Flory     Aug 31, 2017

Helping Students Spot BS and Decipher ‘Fake’ News

“Fake news” has been thrust into the national spotlight since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The term has since become widely used, mocked and, in some instances, abused.

That’s a problem. With an ever-increasing amount of news and entertainment sources available online, students have greater access to information now than at any other time. Anyone can create and upload content online, whether it is factual or not, and reach a wide audience. It is no wonder, then, that many students have a difficult time differentiating what online content is true and what is false. According to a recent Stanford study, many students lack an ability to think critically about information they see online. Distinguishing sponsored content and advertising from news articles, and identifying content sources, are skills that students often struggle at mastering.

How can educators help students recognize credible news sources and identify an information source’s potential bias? When teaching this topic to students, there are a number of items to discuss, according to a resource from the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Students should be able to recognize:

  • if what they are reading makes logical sense,
  • if the information is consistent with sources they already know to be reliable, and
  • if the information be verified through other sources.

It’s also wise to consider whether the source itself is well-known and widely considered reputable. Who authored and published the article? Does it have a copyright, and is it timely?

Educators should also discuss whether the article is only telling part of the story—if there is a hidden agenda (such as a political goal or financial interest), or if it is targeted to a certain group of people who may already share the same ideology. Considering these points will help the reader to better understand the author’s purpose or motivation for writing. A legitimate news article will inform and shed light on a topic for a mass audience. Untrustworthy sources of information may have stated or unstated agendas, such as to make money or perpetuate a specific ideology; these sources will often use persuasive, even hyperbolic, language and imagery.

The idea of gamification, or learning academic content through game elements, is one way to try to increase student interest in and retention of ideas concerning this topic. One simple classroom game helping students to identify false news stories works like this: First, the teacher reads an online or printed article to the class. Students will then have several minutes to conduct research, while applying the lessons and ideas from classroom discussions, to find out whether the article presented by the teacher is true or false. After the allotted research time, students communicate their findings. Points can be awarded for both a correct answer and for students justifying why they believe the article was accurate or inaccurate.

If students become adept at that game, there is another class-to-class collaborative game that my students have participated in. Last year, my 4th grade students played The Fake News Challenge, a game I helped develop with a teacher in California. Each class breaks up into small groups, with each group researching two factual news stories, and then finding or creating a third news story that is “fake.” My students decided to create their own fake news story, some groups adapting it from a real news story but changing major aspects, and other groups writing a story entirely from scratch. The students loved being creative in writing their own story. Some students, however, found that it was more difficult creating a fake news story than they had anticipated, since they had to make it believable yet false.

When the students finished researching and writing their stories, we connected with a partner class via Skype, and the small groups read their three articles, in no particular order, to the other class. The other class then had five minutes to research and figure out which article was false and give justification for why. Small groups from each class then took turns presenting their articles.

If we as educators wish to prepare our students for the workforce they will enter and the world they will inherit, we need to help them develop the critical thinking skills needed in all facets of life. A good educator teaches students what to learn. A great educator teaches students how to learn. We should prepare our students to not only read but to critically analyze the ever-growing amount of information and media they encounter every day.

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