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How schools & philanthropists are joining forces to fight back against fake news: Inside the renewed push for social studies, media literacy, and civic engagement

Kevin Mahnken | September 5, 2018

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Two of the oldest questions in Western education, going back to the ancient Greek philosophers, are: What is true? And how do you know?

Thousands of years later, as superstition and pseudoscience have been replaced by conspiracy theory and ideological dogma, finding answers to those questions is as thorny as ever. The modern heirs to Plato and Aristotle — K-12 teachers — are increasingly being asked to guide students not only toward the right answers but away from the wrong ones: the farrago of political spin, clickbait, and outright lies known as fake news.

We owe the term to the 2016 presidential election, when a political media stripped of gatekeepers generated ludicrous claims, among them that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president and Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. The eruption of false stories has led parents and politicians alike to search for ways to ensure that tomorrow’s voters can peer through the chaos of digital media and see reality with clear eyes.

The new goal is to push students toward fuller comprehension of media, government, and democracy. Whole new curricula have been devised to help students select reliable news sources and avoid online crackpots. Social media companies have promised to halt the spread of fake news on their platforms. And philanthropies are seeding initiatives to rebuild trust in traditional news sources with rigorous standards of accuracy.

• Read more from The 74: 6 Questions From Newsela That Teach Students to Distinguish Between Fake News and the Real Thing

One newly prominent player is Generation Citizen, a nonprofit formed in 2009 to promote civic learning and engagement among American students. In an email to The 74, CEO Scott Warren said the organization “has received much more interest from schools, funders, and concerned citizens generally since the 2016 election” and that he believes “the very foundations of our democracy” need shoring up through America’s schools. “The lack of effective civics education has contributed to our overall political malaise, and there’s a much-needed correction happening,” he says.

Efforts like Generation Citizen’s are generously funded, and they’ve already spawned their own media coverage in the education press.

What no one knows is whether any of it will work.

Can Schools Keep Up With Facebook?

“The question for us as a society is whether schools will recognize that the way we learn about the world has fundamentally changed in an incredibly short amount of time,” says Sam Wineburg, a professor of history at Stanford. “As a nation, if we don’t undertake that challenge, it will contribute to our undoing.”

Wineburg is founder of the Stanford History Education Group, a collection of scholars and students dedicated to improving the teaching of history in American schools. In partnership with the Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, the group has developed free curricular materials to build students’ knowledge of history and hone their research methods. The goal, in the group’s phrasing, is to teach kids to “think like a historian.”

Among other things, that means supplying them with the skills to discriminate among primary sources. That was hard enough in years past, when competing historical narratives were framed by a limited number of authors. In the age of innumerable spam bots and troll farms, it becomes exponentially more difficult.

“The tools we’ve invented have the best of us right now,” says Wineburg, who has watched the creeping growth of social media from his university’s home in Palo Alto, California. “So when Facebook and Google and Twitter and YouTube are innovating on a daily basis … the consequence is the dilemma we’re in right now.”

In August, Facebook took down 652 accounts and pages after finding new influence campaigns aimed at misleading people around the globe.

Wineburg’s own research suggests that the dilemma is serious. In 2016, he studied the media literacy of 7,800 middle school, high school, and college students. Participants were asked to demonstrate skills necessary to be a savvy news consumer: using Google or Wikipedia searches to verify factual claims, for instance, or identifying trustworthy users on Twitter.

The results were scary, belying the assumption that young adults are instinctive users of online media. Just 9 percent of high schoolers were able to correctly identify an industry group masquerading as a think tank, and more than four-fifths of middle school participants believed a piece of sponsored content was a legitimate news article. Many students were taken in by sophisticated graphics, and a distressing number of participants believed that search engines display results based on accuracy, rather than the preferences of their sponsors.

Some form of instruction on responsible internet use is the natural remedy for this kind of ignorance, which Wineburg analogizes to teens driving without a license. But many experts believe that schools can’t adapt quickly enough to keep up with the new information challenges arising outside their walls.

Since the dawn of the internet age, many schools have folded media education into their social studies and civics curricula. Those lessons, some of which date to the late 1990s, typically encourage pupils to follow a checklist or use a handy acronym — a popular version is called the CRAAP Test, for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose — to separate the wheat from the chaff: Who is the author of an article, and what is the organization’s slant? Does the web address end in .gov or .com? Is the content’s publisher separate from its “webmaster”?

“Technology changes quickly, and institutions change slowly,” says Jennifer Kavanagh, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation who studies U.S. political institutions and public opinion. “That’s especially true of schools, because you have so many stakeholders at the local and state level who have a vested interest in thinking about or being a part of how curricula are put together.”

Earlier this year, Kavanagh published a report on the degradation of civic discourse, marked by a shrinking role of facts and a decline in trust for institutions. Along with increased political polarization and the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, she says, an overburdened education system is a key driver of Americans’ inability to agree on what should be simple questions of fact.

“I don’t think schools have necessarily done anything wrong,” she says. “It’s just that the divergence between the speed at which technology is able to change and the speed at which educational institutions are able to keep up — that gap is what appears to be increasing the susceptibility of young people” to fake news.

Wineburg, who says most media literacy curricula are as outmoded as dial-up internet, isn’t optimistic that the post-2016 push will generate anything better. He likens the present moment to the brief and forgotten campaign for personal finance classes in high schools following the Great Recession.

“Many of the courses created will be very poor. In many cases, they will be put in the hands of the librarian, who will come in for several hours a week and deliver instruction that will largely be ineffectual. The main curriculum — they way we teach science, the way we teach history, the way we teach government — will remain as common as the bottom of the sea floor,” he says.

Bringing Back Social Studies

It may not be surprising that students are ill-equipped to distinguish between fact and fiction when it comes to public affairs. Social studies and civics — the courses that generally include units on media literacy, and that are expressly meant to prepare children for the rigors of citizenship — simply aren’t anywhere near the top of the priority list for most schools.

A recent paper by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found that only nine states and Washington, D.C., make a year of civics education a graduation requirement. Nationwide, the average score on the AP Government exam is just a 2.64 out of a possible 5 — the fourth-lowest of all 45 Advanced Placement exams, much lower than the average scores for tough subjects like computer science, Chinese, and calculus. And only Maryland and Washington, D.C., require students to perform some degree of community service.

Catherine Brown, CAP’s vice president for education policy, says the diminishing focus on civics is partly a consequence of policy choices. Over the past few decades, federal education initiatives like No Child Left Behind have mandated annual high-stakes testing in English and math. That ensured more classroom time would be devoted to those subjects, at the expense of other disciplines.

“There’s evidence that the rise of accountability and standards-based reform … has pushed out some of these courses like social studies and civics — and other things, like art and humanities more broadly,” she says. “One of the unfortunate consequences of this really strong focus on reading and math has been less focus on history and civics.”

Five years into the implementation of NCLB, the Center on Education Policy surveyed 491 school districts on how the law had changed their methods of instruction. Thirty-six percent reported they had cut back on teaching social studies, by an average of 76 minutes per week — the most of any subject. Without an intense focus on the facts of democratic governance, students (and former students) are too often left to figure things out for themselves when election time comes around.

That leads to the question: Can problems that have been partially created by educational mandates be solved by further mandates? Kavanagh says forcing schools to set aside class time to teach media literacy and citizenship will only tack another item onto a to-do list that already isn’t being completed.

“Part of the challenge that schools face is that they have so many demands. They have an increasing number of requirements that they have to meet for various mandates at the local level, the state level, or the federal level. To say that they have to add something new doesn’t really seem to help them that much.”

Instead, she and Wineburg advocate a wholesale revision of the K-12 curriculum. Students should study policy-relevant questions in science, like the problem of climate change and alternative energy, they argue. Math classes should include more discussion of statistics, which often mislead even public policy experts. And reading comprehension should focus on both books and newspaper articles.

Even beyond the lessons taught in the classroom, Brown believes that civic instruction has to take place in the wider world through service learning projects. “Ideally, you’d be coupling knowledge of the world with action,” she says.

The CAP report points out that even more important than fostering an awareness of government and current events in class is giving students a taste of democratic involvement. Of the 10 states with the highest rates of youth volunteerism, all require some civics education in high school; students in all those states also score higher than the U.S. average on the AP Government exam.

The value is to teach students to deeply understand that they own their democracy, that they have a really important role to play in the direction the community goes, and that problems are solvable, Brown says. “I think that we’re asking a lot of young people, and the more empowered they can feel to make a difference, the more likely they are to become lifelong citizens.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74.

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