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What's the Question, Again?

A Stanford study finds students are really bad at evaluating sources. But how do we get them to care?

December 1, 2016
 

Over the past year and a half, researchers in the Stanford History Education Group have tested over 7,000 students in middle schools, high schools, and universities across a dozen states to see how well they could evaluate information found online. To the surprise of approximately zero educators, having grown up with smartphones has not made students information literate.

Why anyone would expect students to magically attain a sophisticated grasp of how information is produced and shared and what rhetorical moves might alert them to hidden biases in a source, just because they can type incredibly fast with their thumbs? How are these things remotely connected? And what makes people think these skills haven’t always had to be learned, that the web didn’t invent students’ capacity to choose terrible sources?

All that said, it’s an interesting report on a carefully-conducted and quite impressive study. It seems to have stuck a nerve, with the report released shortly after the announcement that Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” the word of the year. A huge number of news sources have written about this study, just as they have been covering the rise of “fake news” sites.

Though the study itself predates the current kerfuffle over “fake news,” the authors of the report tested students’ understanding of news through online channels, looking for what they call “civic online reasoning” – being able to navigate information about society when online. The report argues that the combination of a deluge of information that is often deliberately misleading, combined with troubling gullibility on the part of students, sets us up for a crisis. They hope this report, and videos and other teaching materials they plan to produce, will “mobilize educators, policymakers, and others to address this threat to democracy.”

Strong words. They echo calls for “media literacy” that we’ve been hearing for years, but given the extent to which we get our news through the filters of social media platforms, and that we have more born-digital content to evaluate, there’s certainly reason for concern.

But . . .

I found myself wondering how well adults would fare on these tests and how you would design a study that would explore the psychological factors that drive news consumption. We tend to react to outrage-producing headlines and dramatic images. We aren’t inclined to challenge information that confirms our prior beliefs. We are reluctant to have our minds changed by evidence that suggests our prior beliefs are wrong. Even if we’re open-minded, the ways we encounter information are shaped by habits that tend to reinforce our world view. Knowing how to figure out whether a source provides accurate information or if it’s a fake is one thing; caring enough to even bother is another.

So that’s what I’m pondering at the moment. Not, “how do we teach students how to evaluate web content?” but rather how do we encourage curiosity about the world and a willingness to confront one's own biases?

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