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Tip of the Week: Bias, civic literacy, and historical thinking skills

Back when my youngest was in fourth grade, I asked her to preview the very cool You Are the Historian website. It’s an interactive tool that asks elementary kids to use historical thinking skills while addressing the site’s guiding question: What really happened at the first Thanksgiving?

The site led her through primary sources, to video clips of colonial historians, and to the exploration of different artifacts. After she was finished, I asked her what she learned by “playing” the game:

The past is what really happened. History is what we say happened.

I couldn’t have been prouder. That’s exactly what I hoped to hear. (And good job, BTW, You Are the Historian creators.)

History is our interpretation of evidence.

We have a problem. We look at evidence. And we figure it out. But I’m not always sure that we’re teaching our kids how to do that very well. Part of the problem is bias. We don’t always make it clear enough that everything we have our kids use to solve the problems we give them is biased.

And just as there is no such thing as unbiased primary evidence, there is no such thing as unbiased secondary evidence. All news, photos, media sites, books – it’s all biased.

Need a few examples? Take a look at this History Scene Investigation lesson plan on the battles of Lexington and Concord. The guiding question – Who fired the first shot that started the Revolutionary War? Students are given eight primary and secondary sources to help them address the question. The problem? Four say American colonists fired first. Four say British soldiers fired first.

Same event. Eight different accounts.

Use the excellent Newseum’s Front Page site to compare and contrast coverage of the same event from newspapers in different cities. Snap screenshots in the same minute of MSNBC and Fox News websites. You’re gonna see differences.

Our job is to help kids figure out not just what the bias is but to figure out the level of bias and why that bias might exist. We want our kids to be able to recognize bias and to use multiple sources to help them understand both past and present.

Several weeks ago, I posted a few highlights of the Stanford History Education Group’s new lesson section on civic literacy.

As part of their upgrade and based on several years of Wineburg’s research, SHEG added 32 lessons specifically focused on teaching kids to be better users and consumers of online information. Using their recent published research titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, Stanford developed powerful activities that help kids improve their online civic skills. (This is a great article for a department PLC discussion, BTW.)

An example?

A “research” article about the positive effects of sport drinks and their impact on athletes recovery times . . . posted on a Gatorade website. Is there bias? Probably. How much bias? Why might there be bias? The SHEG stuff helps us train our kids to ask those questions. Not just about Gatorade but about current political parties, city councils, governmental policies, school board decisions. About 19th century diaries, Civil War photographs, World War II propaganda posters, about Supreme Court decisions – you get the idea.

It’s all biased. And if we want engaged, informed, and knowledgeable citizens, we need to train our kids (and ourselves) to ask better questions about all of the stuff they see, hear, and read.

But SHEG is just one place. Need some other tools that can help tell both sides of the story and provide lessons in civic literacy?

Try these:

The mission of AllSides is to “free people from filter bubbles so they can better understand the world and each other.”

They provide helpful bias ratings of different news outlets (i.e. Breitbart = far right, Huffington Post = far left, FiveThirtyEight = center) with the option for you to provide input on their ratings, they’ve got balanced search results from both sides, and balanced current events.

I especially like their Discover Your Bias page. This is probably where we and our students need to start. Get a clear idea of what our own bias is and how it filters what we choose to read and believe.

And once you’ve explored the basic site, you’re ready to jump into their AllSides for School program. Lesson plans and activities all designed to increase media and civic literacy skills – including the very powerful MisMatch program.

Mismatch encourages and supports intentional civil discourse by connecting classrooms and students from all walks of life, listening and engaging with a variety of different perspectives.

You should also check out the News Literacy Project, they’re dedicated to giving you and your students the tools, tips and resources to learn how to tell fact from fiction. Part of their tools include an online classroom called Checkology. The goal is to help students learn to navigate the challenging information landscape by mastering the skills of news literacy. The virtual classroom’s 12 core lessons help you equip your students with the tools to evaluate and interpret the news and learn how to determine what news and information to trust, share and act on.

You cn explore a site called Blue Feed Red Feed. It provides a similar tool like AllSides – multiple perspectives on a variety of issues. It gets updated every hour.

ProCon is another site that provides a variety of opinions on current events and topics.

These two fact checking sites can also be very useful:

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amy Blakeney #

    Rock star insight, that former fourth grader. Thank you for this. I am desperately trying to get my ninth grade world history students to recognize exactly what you have said: everything we encounter is biased. I often use myself as an example to attempt to illustrate the point that my perspective on history is highly influenced by my ethnicity, nationality, gender, socio-economic status, regionality, etc and is different from the perspective of someone else.

    For my students, primary sources are the golden data of history. It is great that they understand this, but the next step is exactly what scientists have to evaluate: what is the source/quality/strength of the data? Results cannot be taken on face value; the data from which the results came must be analyzed.

    I will dig through your suggestions here. Your additional questions – what is the level of bias and why might it exist are also critical. Thank you.

    February 2, 2018
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment!

      The idea of bias is so hard for all of us but especially our students. But it really is something that we need to continually point out in all of our teaching activities – your personal example is a great way to help kids see that, not just in others but also in themselves.

      Good luck as you shape the future!


      February 4, 2018

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