Updated: This story has been updated with information on the final version of the New Jersey legislation that would require media literacy to be taught at all grade levels.
Students in New Jersey could soon be required to learn how to spot misinformation.
The New Jersey legislature, on Nov. 21, passed a bipartisan bill that would require public schools to teach media literacy.
Media literacy, sometimes called information literacy, is defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication,” according to the National Association for Media Literacy Education, a professional association for educators, academics, activists, and students.
It’s about “understanding the influence media has in our lives and the need to apply critical thinking to our involvement with media and to understand how to communicate using it,” said Sherri Hope Culver, a Temple University professor and the director of the university’s Center for Media and Information Literacy.
The New Jersey bill comes as students spend more time online and as the media landscape becomes more complex. Every day, people are inundated with so much information that may or may not be credible, and experts say it’s important that kids learn how to think critically about all that information.
“Here we are today where the very threats of our democracy are tied to mis- and disinformation,” said Olga Polites, the leader of the New Jersey chapter of the nonprofit advocacy group Media Literacy Now.
“If we can ensure that our K-12 students learn the critical thinking skills necessary in order to be able to identify credible sources of information, to ask questions, to create their own information, we would really be moving the needle on helping them become more civically responsible citizens,” Polites said.
While teaching media literacy skills in K-12 schools is not new, New Jersey would be the first to mandate that school districts teach media literacy skills for students at every grade level from kindergarten to 12th grade, if the bill is signed by Gov. Phil Murphy. Polites said it’s “very likely” that Murphy will sign the bill, given that it passed unanimously and is supported by the New Jersey School Boards Association, the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, and the New Jersey Education Association.
In Illinois, school districts are required to teach lessons in media literacy for all high students. Other states require the state boards of education or departments of education to develop media literacy standards but don’t require schools to teach those skills, according to Media Literacy Now.
The New Jersey bill directs the state’s education department to develop curriculum guidelines on media literacy with the help of a committee of certified school library media specialists and teachers across different subject areas and with the help of media literacy experts. It also requires the department to conduct public hearings across the state so the public can comment on the standards they’ve created.
An earlier version of the bill would’ve required the department of education to provide in-service training and teacher preparation programming on media literacy. The final version doesn’t include those requirements.
“Having [media literacy] incorporated into legislation enables teachers to recognize the importance of it in a more official capacity and dedicate the time that is needed to help students with that skill,” Culver said.
K-12 educators have a lot of topics they’re required to teach, so even if they know media literacy is important, they are more likely to spend time covering the topics students are tested on and that teachers will be evaluated on, she added.
For educators elsewhere who might want to incorporate media literacy education into their curriculum, Culver and Polites have these tips:
- Media literacy education doesn’t have to be a stand-alone class. It can be incorporated into any course, because teachers are using media in all their classes.
- Put together an advisory group of teachers who are already incorporating media literacy into their lesson plans who can provide guidance for other educators and ensure their needs are at the forefront.
- Reach out to media literacy experts to ask for guidance.
- Check out free resources from other states, school districts, or outside organizations, such as the Illinois Civics Hub, Stanford History Education Group, National Association for Media Literacy Education, Media Literacy Now, News Literacy Project, Common Sense Education, and UNESCO.