Schools Are an Important Key to Solving the Challenge of Fake News

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Schools are key to preparing students to read online news with a critical eye, says Professor Donald Leu. (ThinkStock Photos)

A gunman fires a rifle inside a pizza shop, having read and believed online information about a child sex ring, supposedly run by Hillary Clinton. He planned to stop it.

The Pakistani Minister of Defense, a nation with nuclear warheads, responds angrily on Twitter to a fake news story. The story reported that the Israeli Minister of Defense said that Israel would destroy Pakistan if they sent troops to Syria.

Or, consider the site The Google search result description describes this site as “The truth about Martin Luther King: Includes historical trivia, articles and pictures. A valuable resource for teachers and students alike.”

Many would be shocked to learn that the white supremacist group Stormfront owns this site. Presenting false and obscenely distorted information about this famous American, it serves to recruit students doing online research into a community espousing an odious set of beliefs. A link at the bottom takes the reader to Stormfront’s online discussion site for white supremacists where additional falsehoods, lies, and conspiracy theories spread rapidly.

The world seems to be quickly coming apart based on false information and fake news. False information spreads rapidly on the internet and is believed by many, leading to unwise and dangerous decisions. We have known about false information on the internet almost since the internet emerged. After all, anyone may publish anything online. We have also known about the failure of adults, as well as students, to think critically and evaluate online information. Unfortunately, little has been done in our schools to prepare students for this new world of critical thinking.

We no longer live in the age of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. A 2013 Pew report found that 62 percent of people in the U.S. now get their information from social media, and 47 percent of Facebook users go there for news. Today, every person is both a reporter and a consumer of online information. As a result, each of us is potentially the problem — as well as the solution — to the altered landscape of fake news and false information in an online world.

Students need to be prepared as healthy skeptics who can sort out falsehoods and make effective use of online information in order to learn and succeed in an increasingly complex world.

Our schools provide an important key to solving the problem. Indeed, teaching children to be more critically thoughtful as they read online information may be the defining challenge for schools today. Our ultimate goal should be to prepare a nation of readers who can read effectively in this altered informational landscape. Students need to be prepared as healthy skeptics who can sort out falsehoods and make effective use of online information in order to learn and succeed in an increasingly complex world. If students in all nations had the ability to carefully read and critically evaluate online information, few would believe the falsehoods that now spread rapidly, and we would all be safer.

This work will require extraordinary effort, and it must begin now. We have known about this problem for a decade or so and wasted that time with inaction. In 2007, for example, a team from the University of Connecticut and Clemson University presented a study at the American Educational Research Association. It showed that nearly all high-performing online readers from Connecticut and South Carolina, after reading fake information at the site Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, believed that tree octopuses lived in the Northwest.

Recent studies suggest that we have made little progress in the past decade. In 2015, doctoral student Elena Forzani presented a paper at the American Educational Research Association showing that only 4 percent of seventh-grade students in two states (Connecticut and Maine) could read and fully evaluate the reliability of an online site with information about energy drinks.

Another study from the New Literacies Research Lab appeared in 2015 in the flagship journal for reading research Reading Research Quarterly. It showed that seventh-grade students in Connecticut, on average, could successfully complete only about 50 percent of the tasks required in an online research and reading project about health.

A 2016 report from Stanford showed that most students did not know when news was fake, and that 82 percent of middle school students could not tell the difference in an ad labeled with the words “sponsored content” and a legitimate news story.

A study now being prepared in Finland by the eSeek Project at the University of Jyvaskyala with 12- and 13-year-olds shows that less than 20 percent of students could recognize commercial bias at a commercial website on energy drinks.

How should our educational system respond to this issue, following an election in which fake news was widely spread and may have influenced the outcome?

Educators must recognize that online reading and the critical evaluation of online information may be the defining challenge for reading instruction today.

First and most importantly, educators must now recognize that online reading and the critical evaluation of online information may be the defining challenge for reading instruction today. We must begin to prepare young children to become healthy skeptics in relation to online information along with the skills required to read and evaluate source reliability. Library media specialists have taken on this challenge, but it is one that every teacher must assume if we are to be successful.

Second, our reading standards must be revised to make critical evaluation of online information a priority. In the Common Core State Standards, not a single anchor standard in reading includes the words “internet,” “online,” or “digital.” It is as if online reading did not exist in the reading standards.

Third, adult educators must also begin to include instruction in the online reading of information and critical evaluation, preparing our adult population for thoughtful information use to improve their lives.

Fourth, assessments must include online reading and the critical evaluation of online information. Consider, for example, that our nation’s gold standard for reading assessment, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, still does not include any evaluation of students’ ability to read online information. Online reading, as well as the critical evaluation of online information for reliability and accuracy, are missing. State reading assessments, increasingly delivered online, also do not include the evaluation of these skills. They simply deliver offline reading assessment items online.

Finally, special attention must be devoted to members of our society who are economically challenged. The study published in Reading Research Quarterly, mentioned above, found a separate and independent achievement gap for the reading of online information based on income inequality. Since we only measure the reading achievement gap with offline reading, this indicates that the real reading achievement gap, including both online and offline reading tasks, is much greater than we currently believe.

Our nation must begin to raise a generation of healthy skeptics, for regardless of one’s political orientation, left or right, the complex world in which we live demands that decisions be based on facts, not falsehoods. Our teachers will be central to this success. Redirecting our educational system to focus on the issue of thinking more critically and carefully about online information is not a simple task. It requires a change in focus at all levels. This includes policymakers, school leaders, reading and literacy educators, researchers, teacher educators, and especially our nation’s teachers, who are already doing important work for us all. Together, we can prepare students for the future that our nation, and every nation, deserves.


Related Story: UConn Today Q&A With Donald Leu on Fake News