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Fact, opinion, bias, media literacy and the need for democrats with a lower case D

It may be one of the most important things we do as social studies teachers. But it seems as if it’s often one of the first things pushed to the side in our frantic attempt to “cover” all of our content.

What’s it?

It is what we do when we teach our kids to distinquish between fact and opinion, to recognize bias, to identify propaganda and misleading statements – providing the opportunity for our kids to develop strong media literacy skills. These are skills that we should not teach in isolation as simply part of some lesson plan in the back of our supplementary materials. These are skills that prepare your kids to be democrats.

We need more democrats. And I’m not talking Democrats as in the opposite of Republicans.

I’m talking democrats with a lower case D. Fully engaged citizens of the United States. People who understand and participate in the process of our democracy. People who vote, who serve on juries, participate as part of local committees, demonstrate, argue, respect the rights and beliefs of others . . . you know, Americans.

Let’s start with Hurricane Sandy. An event that the traditional and social media have covered extensively over the last few days. Some coverage has been better than others, especially when it comes to photos that are bouncing around the Twittersphere. It’s a great place to start talking with your kids about fact and opinion, about media literacy.

What images from Sandy are real and which are fake?

And we can chuckle over these sorts of images. But what about other sorts of information that our kids run into? How about these sorts of things?

Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job.

Under President Obama: $4,000 tax hike on middle class families.

My opponent (Mitt Romney) says the Arizona immigration law should be ‘a model for the nation.’

If you’re curious, all of these statements are fake. And not just fake but fake at the level of “liar, liar, pants on fire” level.

But like the shark swimming beside my porch photo, these types of statements are often accepted because we want to believe them or because they seem true or because they lend support to something I already believe. They’re accepted because people don’t ask questions about them, because we haven’t trained our kids to think critically about the information that floods their lives.

So what to do?

One of the best things we can do is to always start our instruction off with a problem or question that kids have to solve. And then provide them with structures that will help them address the problem. I’m not talking about questions like

When was Abraham Lincoln elected president?

How many branches of government are described by the US Constitution?

but questions like

Why did 60% of the people in the United States NOT vote for Lincoln in 1860?

What is the best form of government?

We can also give our kids other kinds of structure. Like the 6 C’s of Primary Source Analysis.

  • Content
    What is the main idea? For documents, list important points/phrases/words/sentences. For images, describe what you see.
  • Citation
    Who created this and when? What type of source is it?
  • Communication
    What is the author’s bias or point of view? Who is the intended audience? Why was the source created? What is the tone of the document or image? [Citation and Communication together help discern the source’s bias.]
  • Context
    What is going on in the world, country, region, or locality when this was created? OR, What other sources (primary or secondary) might help provide answers to this question? What else do we need to know to better understand the evidence in this source?
  • Connections
    How does this connect to what you already know?
  • Conclusions
    What contributions does this make to our understanding of history? How did you come to these conclusions? How does this document help answer our essential question: “Why did the 60% of the people in the United States NOT vote for Lincoln?”

What else can we do?

We can use resources like these:

I talked with someone earlier this week who told me that he wasn’t going to vote in next week’s election. I asked why. He said

I don’t know enough about what’s going on to know how to vote. And it’s too much work to go learn what’s going on.

Part of me was happy that the person knew enough that he didn’t know enough – that he couldn’t vote intelligently on the issues and was choosing to stay away from the polls. But a bigger part of me was disappointed that somewhere down the line, social studies teachers failed to give him the skills he needs to be a democrat with a lower case D.

We can do better.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent post that I recommend for all teachers of Social Studies to read.

    October 31, 2012
  2. First week of computer class I give students a grid with three rows: Fact, Rumor, Opinion. We discuss: “What phrases provide cues as to F, R, O?” (not just definition of the three words). Then a fun discussion about “Facts, Rumors and Opinions” about our school. Finally, they go online to one news website and one sports/entertainment website and find one fact, one rumor and one opinion from each. It sets a great groundwork and as a bonus there are always some “at-risk” students who ace this assignment — they understand nuance of language.

    October 31, 2012
    • glennw #

      I like it! Simple, practical but still very powerful. And if your “at risk” kids are buying, bonus!

      Thanks for sharing.


      October 31, 2012
  3. Frank Baker recommends the Social Studies resources on the Media Literacy Clearinghouse

    October 31, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Fact, opinion, bias, media literacy and the need for democrats with a lower case D | Educommunication |
  2. Fact, opinion, bias, media literacy and the need for democrats with a lower case D | History and Geography in the 21st Century Classroom |

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