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Geoff Johnson: Students need to learn the skills fact-checkers use

Canadian students can be taught simple skills to ­distinguish legitimate information from the dross that comprises much of Facebook, Instagram and others, finding key context about sources and claims, writes Geoff Johnson. The Associated Press

The free-for-all cage fight that is social media always reports events in ­different ways based on different ­agendas — ­sometimes political — compared with ­traditional professionally edited and curated media.

And that, as much as anything else, has become an important lesson for kids to learn about in any modern social-studies program.

Social media, unconstrained by editorial fact-checking or any ethical base, has ­little control over how information is pitched, while curated traditional media is subject to technical and ethical guidelines, imposed by professional journalists and editors.

So it is troubling that a recent report ­concludes that Canadian students fare poorly when it comes to discerning the ­credibility of unrestrained online ­information when compared to competently edited media.

The good news is that Canadian ­students can be taught simple skills to do far ­better in terms of distinguishing legitimate ­information from the dross that comprises much of Facebook, Instagram and others.

This is the conclusion of a national study of 2,324 students in grades 7 to 12 — the first of its kind to look at what Canadian students actually do when asked to evaluate the ­trustworthiness of online sources and claims.

Findings are detailed in The Digital Media Literacy Gap, a report released by CIVIX, a non-aligned apolitical Canadian civic ­education charity that takes news, especially news of politically related events, and turns it into teachable moments.

“Find the Facts” is a verification skills program from CIVIX that teaches students how to evaluate online information with the same sophisticated “reading” techniques professional fact-checkers use.

One conclusion in the CIVIX report is that traditional “close reading” strategies, while appropriate for teaching students how to analyze a variety of forms of print ­literature, is not effective as a learning tool when applied to the tsunami of online ­information and disinformation.

Close reading focuses on the specific details, vocabulary or even syntax of a text passage or poem in order to ­understand some deeper meaning. It involves a ­thoughtful, critical analysis, the purpose of which is to discern a more detailed ­understanding of the text’s form, the writer’s intentions and the text’s wider meanings.

That works very well for a student ­studying literature from Shakespeare to Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje.

But “close reading” is not effective if a student assignment requires making ­decisions about the veracity of or disguised agenda behind many social-media posts. That requires the student to engage in what social-media experts call “lateral reading.”

Lateral reading involves conducting research on a topic across the different tabs that come up from an online search for information. It enables the student to locate key context about sources and claims, as opposed to analyzing the information itself.

Lateral reading techniques are at the heart of the program and include a targeted keyword search that includes checking a source’s reputation and related information on curated sites like Wikipedia, as opposed to depending on left- or right-leaning ­Facebook postings.

“Students made remarkable gains in their use of effective strategies to vet online information,” says Dr. Patricia Brooks, an educational psychologist at CUNY, who led the research. “One of the largest gains was in their use of Wikipedia. Teachers often tell students not to use Wikipedia, but it is ­actually a great way for students to take bearings on any unfamiliar topic.”

Mike Caulfield, digital literacy expert with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, co-designed what are called CTRL-F techniques recommended by CIVIX to teach kids how to distinguish propaganda from fact.

“Educators using older methods to teach media literacy often know something isn’t working,” he says. “They just can’t ­figure out what. With the right training and ­materials, the changes can be quite ­dramatic.”

The Canada-wide study of students in grades 7 to 12, carried out with external evaluators, looked at the efficacy of the CIVIX’s program and found that CTRL-F students were more likely to read laterally and accurately assess the trustworthiness of sources and claims, compared with control groups using traditional “close reading” analysis techniques.

That’s significant, because as American journalist Linda Ellerbee wrote, “media literacy is going to make the difference between whether kids are a tool of the mass media or whether the mass media is a tool for kids to use.”

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.