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Tip of the Week: 6 strategies your students can use to combat fake news

For years, experienced social studies teachers have been asking kids to solve problems using evidence. Teaching them to practice historical thinking skills to analyze primary and secondary sources. Training them to evaluate evidence. To create arguments using that evidence.

This sort of instruction and learning wasn’t always officially encouraged. Great teachers did it because they knew it was good for kids. But our recently created state standards, the Common Core Literacy standards, and the NCSS Framework all now support this kind of quality teaching. Historical thinking skills are cool again.

And that’s a good thing. But . . .

I think we need to take the idea of analyzing evidence and solving problems just a bit further. We need to train our students to apply thinking skills to the web in much the same way that we ask kids to make sense of historical evidence.

I’m talking about Fake News. Sometimes satire, sometimes a hoax, sometimes clickbait, and oftentimes outright attempts at deception, fake news is an issue that social studies teachers haven’t given much thought to solving. And while it may seem that this is just one more thing that gets put on our plate to deal with, training our students to recognize and deal with fake news is at the core of what we do.

Over the last few years as Kansas has rolled out its new Social Studies standards, I’ve encouraged teachers to use a four step process that I call the C4 Framework to design and deliver lessons and units. After giving their students a problem to solve, kids need to:

  • collect and organize information
  • work with others to solve the problem
  • create a solution to the problem
  • communicate the solution to others

For example, middle school students might be given the problem of determining what actually happened at the Boston Massacre. They gather contemporary images, personal accounts, and court transcripts. They use document analysis worksheets and the SHEG historical thinking chart questions to make sense of that evidence. They work with others to develop an answer to the problem. And they complete the Framework by creating an argumentative product that uses evidence to support their thesis.

But I’ve noticed over the last few months, that teachers seem to struggle with how to help students deal with the fake news avalanche. We often argue that a strong background in historical thinking skills can help prepare kids to be thoughtful, informed, and engaged citizens. And we’re right. But then we get all flustered when we start dealing with contemporary issues and fake news.

What we see is a rash of fake news that people pass on without thinking. And we really can’t blame young people because we’ve never taught them to do otherwise.

Sam Wineburg
Stanford History Education Group

I’m going to suggest that asking kids to solve the problem of fake news isn’t much different than asking kids to solve the problem of the Boston Massacre. We just need to give them a useful set of tools.

Fake news has always been around. Benjamin Franklin was a master at creating emotionally charged fake news. In 1782, he wrote a series of fake news articles blaming the British and their Native American allies for scalping hundreds of American colonists, including women, girls, and boys in the hopes of generating support for the Revolutionary government:

At the Request of the Senneka Chiefs I send herewith to your Excellency, under the Care of James Boyd, eight Packs of Scalps, cured, dried, hooped and painted, with all the Indian triumphal Marks, of which the following is Invoice and Explanation.

Containing 88 Scalps of Women; Hair long, braided in the Indian Fashion, to shew they were Mothers; Hoops blue; Skin yellow Ground, with little red Tadpoles to represent, by way of Triumph, the Tears or Grief occasioned to their Relations; a black scalping Knife or Hatchet at the Bottom to mark their being killed with those Instruments. 17 others, Hair very grey; black Hoops; plain brown Colour; no Mark but the short Club or Cassetete, to shew they were knocked down dead, or had their Brains beat out.

Containing 193 Boys’ Scalps, of various Ages; small green Hoops; whitish Ground on the Skin, with red Tears in the Middle, and black Bullet-marks, Knife, Hatchet, or Club, as their Deaths happened.

211 Girls’ Scalps, big and little; small yellow Hoops; white Ground; Tears; Hatchet, Club, scalping Knife, &c

While this bit of fake news probably didn’t sway the end result of the Revolutionary War, it had legs. Decades later during the War of 1812, newspapers would dig up these fake accounts of Indian brutality to garner support following an American defeat at the Raisin River in Michigan.

How can we help our students? Train them to ask better questions.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about what that can look like. I get the chance to be part of the Kansas Summer Academy series and will be sharing the following six strategies for dealing with fake news. And it was the work of Mike Caufield and Sam Wineburg that helped me make sense of what this can look like.

Mike is currently the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver and writes at Hapgood. Much of his work deals with digital literacy and I’ve enjoyed several of his posts.

Like many of us, Mike worked with and got feedback from Sam Wineburg from the Stanford History Education Group. Sam has been at the forefront of historical thinking for years. His recent research and articles have shifted to online civic engagement and how evaluating evidence can help students respond to the slug of fake news.

Mike’s public domain work titled Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers and Sam’s research have been incredibly useful in helping me make sense of how best to deal with fake news. I’ve modified their work a bit to include more civic engagement and NCSS standards stuff. While I’m still working my way through all of this, I believe the following six strategies can be helpful and align to quality social studies thinking.

The basic idea is that traditional web literacy checklists don’t really help when we ask kids to evaluate fake news. And they do nothing to encourage civic engagement and taking informed action.

. . . avoid teaching students that the web is about binaries –  ‘fake’ versus ‘real,’ ‘hoax’ versus ‘non-hoax.’ Instead, let’s teach them to ask probing questions about where all information comes from.

Sam Wineburg

So . . . six strategies that support Fact Checking for Fact News:

(Get a PDF version of Fact Checking for Fake News.)

Park Your Emotion
Start by asking kids to check their emotions. They need to understand that implicit and confirmation bias is real and that these biases impact how they view information. The Pew Research Center has a helpful tool for helping students recognize their bias. Help them realize that most fake news is designed to manipulate emotions. If their first instinct is to re-post a Tweet or Facebook post, emotion is involved and they need to step back and start asking questions.

Look Back
Has anyone else already asked this question or had concerns about the site or post? Use Snopes or Factcheck to see if others are looking into the same issue. Use Google or Duck Duck Go to search the web using keywords from the post or site. Use the “site:” search function to look for other internet pages that discuss the page we’re looking at.

And don’t be afraid to use Wikipedia. It’s a great place to find basic information. Train students to look for the padlock symbol on Wikipedia articles that indicate controlled access to edits as well as using the footnotes to look for other trusted sites.

Look Up
Most fake news is re-posted content. Mike uses the term “look upstream” to help students find the original source by looking for hyperlinks. Once they’ve found the original source, students can then begin evaluating that page or post. Using the same SHEG Historical Thinking Chart (that students should already be using to analyze historical documents) can help guide their thinking. Using Google’s reverse image search (right clicking on image to bring up menu) or can help students track down the original source of pictures.

I ran across this image last year:

A quick Tineye search revealed this:

I now know to question other content shared by the person and organization that posted the claim that ISIS is coming.

Read Sideways
Great fact checkers get off the original site or post by going “laterally.” Train kids to go sideways on the web to look for other clues. A post claims that Senator Hal Lindsey’s house was raided by DEA agents? Search for quotes mentioned in the article. Google the author’s name. Search Twitter for the author and quotes. Look for other online references to the organization posting the information. A website claiming unbiased information about the minimum wage is maintained by the Employment Policies Institute.

A quick search? Mmmm . . .

Circle Back
It’s not uncommon to get stuck or end up going down the rabbit hole that is the Internet. Train kids to circle back to the beginning and start the process over. Now that student are smarter and have with more information, they’ll end up with a better process.

Act Out
If our goal is creating thoughtful, informed, and engaged citizens, students can’t stop with simply realizing that the original post or site is fake.The NCSS standards encourage kids to take “informed action.” This is the whole purpose of training kids to think historically and to think about contemporary issues. This is why we exist.

We need to train them to interact with the web and others to make a difference. The goal should not just be evidence analysis. It should be to make the Internet and the world a better place.

So model scripted responses for students that share ways of speaking to truth without conflict and confrontation. This is civic engagement. And we know that kids want to make a difference. Encourage them to see this as one way to make a difference.

Need some more helpful resources?

(Get a PDF version of Fact Checking Resources.)

In 1782, Ben Franklin used the media to push a specific agenda. Forty years later, his fellow Founding Father James Madison wrote to leaders in Kentucky:

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. Learned Institutions . . . throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.

It can be easy to ignore fake news or downplay its importance. But “arming (students) with the power which knowledge gives” just might be one of the most important things social studies teachers do.



7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Carolyn Power #

    Thank you for sharing all of this. The PDFs are great. I’m delivering a PD next week on this very topic. I’ll definitely use this — and give you credit of course!

    June 15, 2017
    • glennw #

      You’re welcome! (And be sure to share Mike Caufield’s more in-depth 185 page Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. Lots more goodies for the over-achievers in your PD group!)


      June 15, 2017
  2. Nickolas Papadopoulos #

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I am currently a graduate student in a Master’s of Teaching program with a focus on secondary social studies. I think one of the most challenging things I will have to do is trying to educate students on navigating through the plethora of information that can be found on the internet and trying to teach them to do the proper research so they can reach an educated guess. My concern in all this is keeping my own bias in check while trying to keep a neutral position. Thank you for sharing.

    July 5, 2017
    • glennw #

      Training students to use effectively use evidence to support arguments and ideas is a challenge for every social studies. Good luck!

      Thanks for the comment!


      July 5, 2017
  3. Both the left and the right now seem determined to fight a war with each other using exaggeration and propaganda. Those seeking out the truth will have a difficult time. I hope many students benefit from your teaching strategy.

    July 13, 2017

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