Tuesday / June 25

How Do We Help Students Fight Fake News?

Halloween may be behind us, but this fall season has been filled with horrifying stories about information pollution. Perhaps the most dramatic: Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, founder of the InfoWars site, was found liable in two recent cases for falsely claiming that parents of murdered Sandy Hook Elementary School students had participated in faking the tragedy. The judgments against him totaled $50 million in one case and nearly one billion (!) in the other.

Wait, that’s good news, isn’t it?  After all, according to Connecticut Public Radio ( John Jackson, the Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication, made this assessment: “What this [the verdict] says is we can’t just make up truths to fit our own ideological predilections.” But the bad news is that others are not so sanguine. That same article quotes Rebecca Adelman, a professor at university of Maryland Baltimore County as saying that “if there’s an audience” for such made up truths, “someone is going to meet the demand” because “there’s money to be made.”  And there is an audience. Indeed, according the Insider ( Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, found that 15-20 % of respondents to his surveys consistently either agree or strongly agree with items like “School shootings like those at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, are false flag attacks perpetrated by the government.” Yikes. It seems that information pollution is not going away on its own, at least not anytime soon.

In fact, things may get worse.  To take just one example, as the Washington Post recently reported ( advances in artificial intelligence are making deep fake videos both more sophisticated and more readily available.

So there we have it. Fake news isn’t going away and is likely to become more prevalent.

Not to put too fine a point on it, as a consequence, some believe that the very future of democracy is at stake. Historian Sophia Rosenfeld argues that the relationship between truth and democracy has long been “fraught.” But now, she notes, “Social media and the Internet more broadly have clearly had a rather revolutionary effect on not just what we take to be true but how truths circulate…. The quickness and the spread is extraordinary, and we don’t have many tools, most of us, for distinguishing between legitimate stories and illegitimate ones, or we don’t care that much” (

Given the stakes of the game, it seems crucially important for schools to work to provide those missing tools and to engage students on understanding why they matter. We need powerful instruction to do so. But we worry that some approaches to fighting fake news may not be fully effective for two important reasons:

  1. They fail to recognize fully the extent to which consumers of fake news are implicated in its effectiveness
  2. They fail to recognize the reality of teacher’s lives.

In our book Fighting Fake News: Teaching Students to Identify and Interrogate Information Pollution we work to overcome those problems. Let’s take each of them in turn.

A growing number of teachers and scholars have been developing approaches that will help students become more critical readers of digital media.  For example, the invocation to read laterally the way fact-checkers do (as proposed by Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew in their work on civic online reasoning) makes a huge amount of sense. Indeed, we followed their advice before citing the websites we included in this post.  But simply exhorting students to slow down and seek out more information is not likely to be fully effective because, as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman maintains based on his lifetime of work into human cognition, we are hard-wired not to do so.  Our survival as a species has depended on fast thinking rather than slow, deliberate thinking. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the issues about which we are especially susceptible to be deceived and the cognitive biases that are most likely to contribute to that deception.  We focus on three:

  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories, or to seek only evidence that confirms one’s a priori point of view and positions and to discount any data that is disconfirming
  • Availability bias: the human tendency to think that examples that come readily to mind are more representative than is actually the case, and
  • Overdramatization bias: a cover term for a subset of ten biases that lead us to overdramatize, see things as more extreme and negative than they are, and thus to misunderstand the world.

In our book we share lessons designed to help students recognize and overcome these biases.

The second problem we perceive is that some approaches to fighting fake news don’t recognize the truth of teachers’ lives in two ways: not recognizing how busy teachers already are and not recognizing how challenging today’s political climate is for teachers.

Think of how much teachers are expected to teach. ELA teachers, for example, are supposed to teach kids to read literature and informational texts; to write arguments, informative texts, and narratives; to master the conventions of academic English, to listen open-mindedly and with comprehension; to speak effectively – and more. We have to recognize that already burdened teachers deeply understand that every minute devoted to fighting fake news is a minute they can’t spend teaching the close reading of a complex literary text, having a writing conference, and so on. So, whatever is done on teaching digital reading has to be done with an awareness of teachers’ myriad responsibilities.

That’s why in our book we work to establish that teachers can fight fake news in the context of the topics and the units they already teach by building bridges between what they are already doing and what needs to be done. Those bridges need to be built because while reading the digital texts through which fake news is promulgated resemble the linear texts that are part and parcel of teachers’ assigned work, they differ in important ways. Rosenblatt (1938) notes that the reading a linear text is a transaction between the reader and the “signs on the page” (p. 26). Although readers inevitably create different “poems” (meaning-making responses) from their transactions with those signs, in linear texts all readers engage with the same set of symbols. On the other hand, readers make unique texts when they read digital texts by virtue of how they engage with the features of those digital texts. In fact, we’d argue that readers of digital texts have a transaction with a text that at least to some extent they author. Do I watch an embedded video? If so, when? Do I click a link? If so, when? These fundamental differences coupled with the difficulty of transferring knowledge from one context to another means we have to give digital texts our focused attention. That’s why we provide separate chapters in which we share lessons designed to build bridges between traditional linear texts and digital texts when teaching four topics that are central to the work of both ELA teachers and teachers of other disciplines:

  • Close reading
  • Point of view
  • Text-based argumentative writing
  • Literary theory

In so doing, we hope we create a safer space to do the kind of teaching we’re calling for. Let’s face it: In the current climate, we need to be careful and to protect ourselves. We have to recognize that the power of teachers to do their work is increasingly under attack.  According to the Washington Post

Over the past three academic years, legislators in 45 states proposed 283 laws that either sought to restrict what teachers can say about race, racism and American history; to change how instructors can teach about gender identity, sexuality and LGBTQ issues; to boost parents’ rights over their children’s education; to limit students’ access to school libraries and books; to circumscribe the rights of transgender students; and/or to promote what legislators defined as a “patriotic” education.

That’s why we need to integrate democracy building instruction into what is clearly understood as something we already have to do. No one is going to be upset by an English teacher’s teaching close reading, Point of View, literary theories or the use of evidence in argumentative writing. No one could object to a social studies teacher’s helping students to look at the origins of primary source materials, or to a science teacher’s encouraging students to critically evaluate the evidence that supports scientific models. Recognizing the connection between expert knowledge in our subject areas and the new knowledge that students need to understand the new kinds of texts they encounter daily means that we have the time and the permission we need to pursue that instruction.

We know that the demands on teachers have never been higher. But we also know that it has never been more important for us to take on one more demand: teaching the critical reading of digital texts. Our book is designed to provide both theoretically rich and practical ways of doing just that.

Written by

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, a classroom teacher for 15 years, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is currently Professor of English Education at Boise State University. He works in local schools as part of a Virtual Professional Development Site Network sponsored by the Boise State Writing Project, and regularly teaches middle and high school students. Jeff is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project.

Michael W. Smith, a professor in Temple University’s College of Education, joined the ranks of college teachers after eleven years of teaching high school English. His research focuses on understanding both how adolescents and adults engage with texts outside school and how teachers can use those understandings to devise more motivating and effective instruction inside schools.

Hugh Kesson trained as a high school teacher in London and has since worked in a variety of educational roles and settings in the UK, US, and Australia. He earned his PhD at Temple University’s College of Education where his doctoral work investigated the influences of digital technologies on reading and reading instruction. Hugh’s writing has appeared in English Teaching: Practice & Critique.

Deborah Appleman is Professor of Educational Studies and Director of the Summer Writing Program at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her primary interests include adolescent response to literature, multicultural literature, and the teaching of literary theory to high school students. A high school English teacher for nine years, Deborah works weekly in urban and suburban high schools.


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