How I Teach My Students To Be On Guard Against Fake News

We need to teach all students critical thinking skills, and we need to start when they’re young.

12/30/2016 10:13 am ET | Updated Dec 30, 2016
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High school students gathered at the Washington Monument to protest President-elect Donald Trump on Nov. 15.

Telling people I teach a high school course called Theory of Knowledge often ends in the person reflecting that they wished they had been offered such a course. In today’s world of fake news that many contend helped elect President-elect Donald Trump, it is now more likely to end with the person wishing that everyone had to take a similar course.  

Theory of Knowledge is a core requirement for all students in the International Baccalaureate diploma program, a rigorous two-year curriculum for 11th and 12th graders. The course guides students through examining the scope, concepts, methodology and historical development in different areas, such as science, math, history and ethics. Students are required to do a formal presentation on a real-life situation, from which they extract a “knowledge question” as the focal point.

A pair of students this year examined the real-life situation of police violence against African Americans in Chicago through the question of how beliefs affect our interpretation of reality. Because they are expected to investigate different perspectives, students have to contemplate how their own beliefs, as well as those of others, might affect what they see and how they interpret it. The critical thinking skills at the heart of the assessment are crucial for modern media literacy and democracy. We fall victim to fake news when we don’t understand our vulnerabilities that result from our biases and assumptions.

We fall victim to fake news when we don’t understand our vulnerabilities that result from our biases and assumptions.

We also can’t judge the reliability of claims in the media without being knowledgeable ourselves. I saw this firsthand in a Theory of Knowledge class when a student commented that he didn’t think the Black Lives Matter movement had anything to do with slavery. I waited for other students to question the assertion, but none did. In fact, other students added that it seemed to be the product of propaganda targeted at police. I was caught off guard. Wasn’t I still in my generally progressive Massachusetts school classroom? As I dug deeper, I learned that my students had little knowledge of the civil rights movement. How could I expect them to be able to evaluate such claims without the relevant historical knowledge?

The six subject-specific courses that I.B. diploma students take are not only content-rich, but students are expected to think critically about the content. They are expected to examine the value and limitations of historical sources. Students in the natural and social sciences conduct lab and field research so that they may one day be critical consumers of science literature. I.B. diploma students also write a 4,000-word essay in which they hone their ability to evaluate sources. One student this year wrote about whether Trump’s use of linguistic devices on Twitter supports the contention that Trump is a demagogue. 

Just as critical thinking can’t be taught in one course alone, it also can’t be left to just 11th and 12th grade. Our son’s elementary school sent a letter home a few years ago proudly announcing that Gateway (gifted and talented) teachers would now be going into classrooms, and as a result, every child would be guaranteed a critical thinking lesson once per quarter. There was surely more critical thinking than this happening, but it was telling that ― seemingly without anyone noticing ― the letter it implied critical thinking was an “extra.” 

How could I expect them to be able to evaluate such claims without the relevant historical knowledge?

Despite good intentions and good teachers, the system’s lack of emphasis on critical thinking pushed us to choose private school this year. In contrast to the weekly Gateway pull-out book group, my son’s class at his private school is doing a semester-long mock Newbery Medal nomination process in which they develop and defend their opinions about the books they are reading. Students need to develop the habit of forming independent opinions based on evidence from an early age if we expect them to demand the same of themselves and others later in life.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for classes like Theory of Knowledge and the I.B. program as a whole to be restricted to the students perceived to be most able. This often excludes students of color, poor students, students for whom English is not their first language and students with learning differences. There is a push from within the I.B. and from education reformers to increase access to the I.B. for all students. I am lucky enough to teach at one such “I.B. for All” school. A special education student in my class who would have been excluded from the Theory of Knowledge course at most schools once shared the observation that being in a hurry seems to make people less ethical. As I slow down to let a car pull out during my morning commute, I appreciate that this student was able to be in my class.

Practicing critical thinking while developing content knowledge gives students a fighting chance at deciphering truth from fiction in today’s news. It’s never been O.K. for critical thinking education to be reserved for a few. But now, more than ever, it must become a right and responsibility for all.  

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