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We must teach media literacy in the American school system

Haley Marie Jacks

This article is an opinion piece by a Haley Marie Jacks, a US teacher candidate in the US.

The current supposedly tech-savvy generation of US teens has a horrendous track record in discerning fake news and false information they come across on multiple social media platforms and the internet, studies have found.

On 27 June 2017 Facebook reached 2 billion users. Earlier that same year, Instagram reached 700 million users, Twitter hit over 328 million, and Snapchat got to 166 million. According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens in the United States have access to a smartphone, and 45% of this population states that they are constantly online. With these numbers climbing, it should be obvious that media literacy is an important skill for all citizens, and especially America’s youth. While Western nations are investing money and resources to defend and protect their people from misinformation and disinformation, our youth has been left vulnerable to this new method of warfare not by an ignorance of the problem at hand, but rather the assumption that they are informed enough to distinguish fact from fiction. While a young tech-savvy generation should be considered a strength, it is proving to be a weakness.

Many have suggested that we combat the issue in classrooms considering every American child (both citizen and undocumented) is legally entitled to a K-12 education (from age 4 to 19). However, in this increasingly technological day and age, the American education system has been abandoned to its obsolete practices. There is no lack of awareness or ideas around the threat of misinformation from educators and administrators, but rather a lack of resource knowledge and an effective way to implement media literacy education in classrooms.

Stanford University conducted a study which showed the astonishing inability of American students to recognise valid sources. Students at various levels were tested on their ability to identify and analyse reliable digital resources with competence being measured by depth of questioning, reasoning and accuracy in conclusions. Results showed not only incorrect methods of reasoning, but also a lack of questioning about how a source was created. It was found that these inadequacies were the result of lack of media literacy in students’ education and a lack of time and exposure to resources for teachers to incorporate media literacy in the classroom. As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002, the legislation that implemented standardized testing and Common Core education standards, American educators struggle more every year to incorporate critical thinking and real-world skills into their curriculum. So how do we incorporate the increasingly necessary subject of media discernment into our classrooms?

We must first acknowledge that there is a problem and exactly what is the vulnerability to disinformation? Propaganda spread by Russian agents in 2016 through social media platforms in order to pit Americans against one another and sway the election is one of many examples. These agents were responsible for several fake Black Lives Matter Facebook accounts that caused unrest in urban areas and various other campaigns that were meant to make democracy look weak. In an interview with CNN Money, Julia Angwin stated, “anyone can spread lies and misinformation… This platform is perfect for information warfare”.

Since the 2016 election, Russian agents – alongside other groups and organizations – continue to aim propaganda material at young people. For example, in February 2018, 17 children were shot and killed at a public school in Parkland, Florida. This event sparked a young people’s coalition against gun violence in the United States and lead to the “March For Our Lives” protests across the country. One of the faces of this movement is a student from Parkland named Emma Gonzalez. After being featured in Teen Vogue, an unidentified organization obtained a photo of the young woman ripping up a shooting target and photo shopped it to show Ms Gonzalez tearing up the United States constitution. The public was outraged over the doctored photo and many turned away from the “March From Our Lives” campaign as a result. Teen Vogue’s chief content editor Phillip Picardi was quick to address the doctored image, stating on Twitter, “The fact that we even have to clarify this is proof of how democracy continues to be fractured by people who manipulate and fabricate the truth”.

This is only one of many fake news incidents that have spread on social media platforms with the goal of polarizing our already seemingly divided nation. Many worry that Americans, especially younger people, are not being properly equipped with the tools necessary to, “consume and redistribute news, to navigate the complex news-media ecosystem, and make constructive decisions based on those skills as members of society”.

The co-chair of the Center for Educator Preparation at Colorado State University Dr Anne Sebald argues that we must empower students to be independent thinkers. However, this concept is smothered in an era when the Common Core forces instructors to teach to a set of strict standards in order to obtain federal funding. With Common Core standards at the forefront of administrators’ minds, critical thinking and real-world application of classroom information has faltered. This presents a greater issue than just our ability to differentiate fact from fiction, but now our ability as a nation to detect analyze a threat: creating a critical danger to national security.

When used correctly and in combination with cohesive, cognitively challenging lesson plans, technology can be an effective classroom resource that teaches students how to be astute members of the global electronic community. The Stanford History Education Group commented: “Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it”. There are several online media literacy resources available to the public that can be utilized in K-12 classrooms. For example, Media Smarts is a Canadian non-profit that provides media literacy training for students aged five to eighteen. The entire philosophy of this organization revolves around the idea that media literacy “encourages young people to question, evaluate, understand and appreciate their multimedia culture”. The website provides lesson plans for teachers on everything from protecting personal data to verifying media sources, as well as engaging, hands-on activities for students. This attacks the problem of disinformation by both advising teachers on how to teach media literacy and directly training children to be more discerning in their media exploration.

As a product of the American education system and a teacher candidate myself, I was amazed to find that we were not taking advantage of these resources in our classrooms – and they are not hard to find. Even at the local level, I see our library providing classes and resources on media literacy to every demographic in the community. Poudre River Public Library offers classes on computer basics, computer safety, and how to identify and use valuable resources. In addition, many of these classes are offered in both Spanish and English due to Colorado’s high Spanish-speaking population. Katie Auman, communications representative at PRPL comments: “We've had a strong focus on discussing/presenting resources that pass the ‘CRAP’ test (currency, reliability, authority, and purpose/point of view), and with helping students AND adults navigate through ‘fake news’. Additionally, our tween and teen tech programs often include an element of ‘digital citizenship’ within them”1. In addition to classes, the library provides a collection of online media literacy resources including, Be Internet Awesome, and more.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act built the foundation for an education system in which funding is delegated to the highest performing schools in the country, and “high performance” is determined by a series of standardized exams that evaluate every child’s ability to regurgitate information and the instructors’ competence in their content. Teachers are too overwhelmed meeting standards in order to keep their jobs and afford functional classroom materials to allow themselves to be creative and to teach important life skills. Information warfare is becoming an increasingly dangerous threat, especially to young people, and the best way to combat this pressing issue is in the classroom.

Outreach to educators at conferences would be incredibly beneficial as these instructors could take away their knowledge and communicate it to their school’s, or even district’s, staff. Schools could have a chosen faculty representative for media education who can give short briefings at staff meetings on these resources and ideas on how to use them in the classroom. Many of the schools I have worked in have media centers with knowledgeable staff who I believe would have the most time and resources to educate faculty on various resources. Media literacy specialists could also give presentations directly at schools or for entire districts. Also, there is tremendous potential in the next generation of educators. University presentations on teaching media literacy for various age groups and content areas for teacher licensure candidates will produce new teachers who are prepared to instruct their students to be media smart. One aspect to keep in mind is the limited funding in various school districts that cannot afford computers and other media resources. For these schools, it may take more time and effort to identify effective media literacy instruction.

I have worked in many schools and with various demographics in the state of Colorado and every day I see teachers making an effort to teach their students not how to test, but how to think in a system which encourages right answers and which suppresses curiosity. I can affirm that there is no shortage of faith in our students to grow and learn both as academics and as citizens of an increasingly interconnected global community.

However, along with this sense of community comes a fear of disinformation in a world where everyone’s voices and motives can be heard. Discerning fact from fiction grows increasingly difficult as various organizations release false information that can very easily appear true to someone without the proper media education. We have an array of classroom resources available to us to combat this issue, yet the methodology of the American school system as a whole asks instructors to focus on Common Core content standards, rather than real-world skills and application. In order to make an astute population, we have to find a way to integrate Common Core standards with media literacy at the classroom level.

  • 1. "Interview." E-mail message to author. July 10, 2018

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