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How to keep students safe from fake news

Young people are particularly susceptible to false stories, according to a study. IB teachers tell IB World magazine how students can guard themselves against bogus reports

Social media is fast becoming a primary news source for many individuals, delivering instant information to an increasingly busy generation.

But following the ‘vote-rigging’ controversy surrounding the presidential election of Donald Trump, conjured ‘Facebook Live’ feeds from space and an illusive famous baby gorilla called Harambe McHarambeface, the world has become more untrusting of news reports shared on the internet and social media.

Such stories led Oxford Dictionaries to declare ‘post-truth’ as its international word of 2016. The phrase relates to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals. ‘Post-truth’ could become “one of the defining words of our time”, said Oxford Dictionaries’ Casper Grathwohl.

Fake news – a fabricated, exaggerated or false story – accounted for 10.6 million of the 21.5 million shares, reactions and comments on US politics stories on Facebook last year, according to Buzzfeed. And young people are easily duped.

A study by Stanford Graduate School of Education found that middle and high school students in the US – and even some in college – have trouble identifying credible online resources. Young people associate credibility of a source by “how high a story appears on search results,” said the research.

Facebook recently hired fact-checking organizations to review questionable articles, while BBC news has said it will “assemble a team of fact-checkers to debunk fake stories across the internet”. But what are IB World Schools doing to ensure students don’t fall prey to false headlines?

Automatic biases

The IB encourages students to validate their information sources and become digital citizens – promoting the appropriate and responsive use of technology. But our automatic biases can lead us to believe false news reports.

For example, when the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement came up in a Socratic seminar during a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class at Sturgis Charter Public School, Massachusetts, US, a student said she believed the movement was the product of a media conspiracy.

“The student had fallen victim to fake news,” says TOK Teacher Lynn Kelley.

“We fall for fake news stories more easily when it corresponds to our own worldview and corroborates our biases. By encouraging open-mindedness and critical thinking, IB teachers and the IB curriculum are well positioned to make students more aware of this vulnerability.

The IB Learner Profile and international mindedness lays a foundation for students to gain the knowledge and awareness needed to dismiss fake news.”

Sturgis is working to sharpen students’ research skills and encourage healthy skepticism in the growing digital age. Chris Abel, the school’s IB history teacher and IB examiner, asks students what questions would they ask if he told them that he heard they had cheated on a test.

Students say they would ask who said it, and why someone would say it – which is the heart of OPVL (origin, purpose, value, limitations) source analysis in history.

Dynamic teachers who can relate research skills to real life play a crucial role in helping students understand how to do academic research,” says Kelley.

“Abel helps students understand the rigorous standards a historian must meet in order to earn a PhD in addition to the peer review process that precedes publication in an academic journal. Understanding the process through which knowledge is produced and verified is a key component of TOK, too. Fellow TOK teacher Christine McDowell often finds herself writing comments like, ‘How do you know this?’ or ‘Is this an assumption?’ on student essays.”

John Hellner, a previous TOK Teacher at Overseas Family School in Singapore, suggests teachers incorporate one or two 20-25 minute discussion sessions into the weekly teaching programme.

“This shouldn’t be added on to the main course outcomes, but as a means to achieve course outcomes. Choosing a real-life situation, news item or a TV episode of topical interest, teachers can examine the role of reason, emotion, evidence, bias and much more in our decision making about claims barraging us daily.

“Alternatively, or possibly in addition, subject specialist teachers could capture opportunities to critically consider current news pertinent to their subject areas, perhaps in the first or last few minutes of class. This brings authenticity to the subject.”

Critical thinking is the foundation

The OPVL approach is also adopted at Madison Country Day School (MCDS), Wisconsin, US, which offers the IB Diploma Programme (DP). English Teacher Mark Childs and History Teacher Bob Camosy believe that evaluating any source of information forms the foundation of a great education.

“Maybe it’s a cliché, but the foundation is critical thinking,” said Camosy. “This kind of thinking applies to all aspects of life, ranging from making an informed purchase to reading something on the internet.”

For example, MCDS students continuously identify and acknowledge the perspective of each source to achieve a thorough understanding of the relevant historical period. They are asked to apply that same process to contemporary sources and issues.

“OPVL becomes a verb,” says Childs. “Students and teachers are often overheard saying ‘Let’s OPVL that article’.”

The approach is not limited to History and English students. OPVL can be used in our everyday lives to counteract our own biases, adds Childs. Younger students also benefit from taking ownership of their knowledge, which the PYP and MYP give ample opportunities for, says Kelley. “We don’t need to expose younger children to politicized news articles to get them thinking about the subtle media messages that influence their thinking”, she adds.

We all need to challenge everything and always ask: why? Can you clarify? Is there an alternative? Does this matter? What if everyone did or thought this way?, says Hellner.

“TOK can provide the tools for detecting the truth, but not the attitude or will to contest ideas and claims. This probably comes, at least in part, from a teacher modelling skepticism and repetition of the exercise in the classroom,” he adds.

The battle for truth

Organizations might be ramping up their efforts to stamp out fake news, but they have a huge task. With billions of users around the world sharing news daily, it’s unlikely false stories and propaganda will ever be eradicated. It’s up to teachers to lead the next generation by example and ensure their research skills are continually updated.

As fake news becomes more surreptitious, it is not enough to teach students steps to follow in order to decipher truth. Digital citizenship is important, but must be taught as a mindset,” says Kelley.

“I have learned a lot about teaching students to do online research, but as quickly as we teach students a new twist to be aware of, media entrepreneurs find another way to sidestep student’s rational brains in order to sell them something, whether it be an idea or a product.

“There are times when I feel overwhelmed as a teacher facing this challenge, but its difficulty is matched only by its importance. It is nice to know that the IB is on my side and as IB teachers around the world, we are fighting this battle together.“

An IB parent’s perspective

Mohamed Abueljebain has three children studying the PYP at AIS in Kuwait. He says:

“The role of parents is just as important as the role of teachers, and keeping track of what my children are exposed to online has been a challenge. We make sure that iPad time and research is done under our supervision.

“I always ensure my newspaper is visible to the children during our morning ride to school. I wait for them to ask about a headline, and I use it as a tool to tell them about the world. I make sure they know that not everything printed is necessarily true. I encourage them to do their own research to find out what is true and what is not.

“Storytelling is a great tool that can be used to teach children how to deliver the truth. Once that is mastered, they can use it to find out if others are telling the truth.”