Engaging Students in Mental Heavy Lifting to Root Out Fake News

Paul Wright

Paul Wright teaches 9th grade Government/Economics and 11th grade Interdisciplinary American Studies (Viewpoints on Modern America) at Radnor High School in Wayne, PA. He began his career at Mable G. Holmes Middle School in Elizabeth, NJ. He has mentored student teachers, and actively collaborates with his colleagues at Radnor. He was a 2011 Finalist for Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. He is also a co-owner of JumpStart Main Line College Essay Camps. When he isn’t in the classroom, you can probably find him behind a book, on his bike, or losing another argument to one of his three teenagers.

I have been privileged to write in this space before, and have written about a staple in my classrooms—the Socratic Seminar (11th grade) and the Round Table Discussion (9th grade). For the 11th graders, these are topic driven—The Great Gatsby, Woodrow Wilson and WW1 are examples. For the 9th graders, round table discussions are designed to train freshmen in focused discussion, source annotation and analysis, and constructive criticism. (The link to my previous post is HERE.) The reason I bring up round table discussions again is because I purposely vary the sources of the articles I have kids read, and then we make an overt discussion out of the source. I have had kids read ACLU new releases and Fox News bulletins in consecutive weeks, to vary both the POV on the news and to be able to let kids see bias in reporting.

One key in discussions of news analysis is for kids to see that “bias” itself is a neutral term. We have biases based upon our learning styles, our geography, even the places we choose to shop. Identifying bias as something that simply exists in us makes it more approachable. I am thankful to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, for whom I served as a Trainer and Scoring Director, for the excellent bias training they offer to all employees for a model of how “bias” can be approached with even the most apprehensive audience. This can also lead to productive conversations of “privilege,” but perhaps that is for another blog. Following the idea of disassembling bias at the 9th grade level, it is vital to crack open articles we read before we read them, while we read them, and after we read them. Who is reporting? What is their point of view? Do they have something invested in a particular takeaway? How can we know that?

This doesn’t even have to be a news set piece either. I am always taken with how much Olympics news there is on the national news broadcasts of the network carrying the games that year—wink, wink. Kids don’t see that business aspect that most news is often beholden to. That doesn’t make network news evil, or imply that newspapers must cater to advertisers. Freshmen don’t necessarily need to be watching Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. The way I try to position kids is at the middle of multiple POVs. What does it mean to be a gun control advocate in an open carry state? Is freedom of speech the same for students in schools as it is for citizens on the street? Should it be? When kids can see the wheels that turn behind opinions, they start to see that having an opinion isn’t enough. As Charlie Munger puts it, one needs to read enough to HAVE AN OPINION. That is usually my goal for 9th graders.

Then you can start to take apart the quality of news and reportage. That is when you can start to see what might be “fake news,” or what drives current discussions. When Allison quotes the Center for News Literacy and “[preferring] information that supports beliefs…” I am reminded of Annie Duke’s recent book Thinking in Bets and her extensive discussion of “resulting,” as well as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and how he breaks down the two systems of human thinking—the easier System 1, where we don’t do heavy lifting and use stereotypes, heuristics, and quick assumptions to assess a situation, and the more complicated System 2, which requires genuine mental heavy lifting. System 1 is handy when it helps us decide just how long the line at Chipotle really is (did a team bus just pull in, or is this just six kids gathered around one kid buying them all chips and guac?), but less helpful when articles appear in our feed that use directed language to insult those we don’t like or laud those whom we do. Tapping System 2 is a learned skill, requiring the practices of stamina and consistent exposure to opinions we may not be comfortable with. It’s the mental version of doing 5 push ups or doing 55 push-ups and then using a kettlebell in a lifting set. You have to want to do the latter.

And, let me be clear—teachers need to practice these skills themselves in order to be able to encourage kids to do the same. Not easy, but so, so, worth it, especially since this generation is exposed to more text than any that has come before it.

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