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Social Studies Opinion

We Need Civic Online Reasoning in Our Schools

By Nancy Flanagan — March 20, 2018 3 min read
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Did you fiddle with your Facebook privacy settings this morning? I did.

Spurred by righteous anger, I took advice that is popping up online, everywhere, today, in light of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data privacy scandal, to strip away access to freely shared information about my favorite books, Kickstarter projects and shopping habits.

A handful of my friends shut down their Facebook accounts, but that strikes me as a dramatic slamming of the barn door when the horses are miles down the road, probably en route to a nice farm in Russia.

Here’s what I’m wondering, however: Will the newly energized students who have effectively used Facebook and Instagram to organize rallies, walkouts and powerful online conversations about gun violence be tweaking their privacy settings as well? Will the well-funded anti-union oligarchs in this country be planting false stories about teachers’ salaries and performance to short-circuit teacher strikes?

Part of our national chagrin over what happened in the 2016 election and since is, I believe, embarrassment. We’re ashamed that we were taken in by phony news stories. And it’s humiliating to think we donated (without knowing it) a motherlode of personal data to crooked companies, who used it to support our enemies in their campaign to put cracks in the American democratic process.

How did this happen? That’s the focus right now—who to blame, who deserves our anger and retribution.

But what’s more important is preventing it from happening again and again. We have an election coming up in less than eight months. And we have a generation of young people engaged and flexing their civic muscles.

It’s axiomatic among teachers and others who work with teenagers that they are both gullible and reckless when it comes to what they read and post online. Media literacy was a hot topic 25 years ago, and this definition has evolved over time (and with the advent of changing communication technologies and social media): Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms—from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

It’s not a bad definition but what’s missing is right there in the first sentence: education. Our national focus on ‘accountability'—competing for the best test scores—has completely eclipsed any serious movement, in our classrooms, toward rigorous analysis of the media in which our students are immersed.

We’ve produced a generation of students who can’t evaluate the veracity of Fox News or Betsy’s DeVos’s overcooked statement that ‘we’ve spent billions and billions and billions (on them) with zero results.’ It’s hard to imagine what could be more important than developing the critical thinking skills that facilitate our students’ ability to discern truth from fake news. Media literacy may be in the standards, somewhere, but it’s not on the test, so it gets short shrift in the classroom.

Some good news? MediaWise, a “groundbreaking endeavor aimed at helping middle and high school students be smarter consumers of news and information online.” A lot of students, in fact: The project plans to reach a million students, via a $3 million grant from Google and with assistance from the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG):

At the center of the project is a body of research from SHEG that shows that despite being constantly online, the vast majority of teenagers are unable to correctly evaluate the credibility of online news and information. (Adults didn't do much better, according to Stanford's research). Over the next two years, Stanford will develop a new curriculum for use in schools to teach better information literacy and improve what it calls "civic online reasoning."

Civic online reasoning. That descriptor pretty much sums it up. If we’re going to operate as a democracy, our citizens need to be able to sort out accurate, reasonable, independently produced information from the biased and distorted stuff.

As I write, Facebook has lost an estimated $60 billion in value because they played fast and loose with data privacy. They allowed a treasure trove of incalculable value to fall into the hands of people who used it to damage our national values and political stability.

If we can begin—just begin—to give the next generation some tools to change their information literacy for a measly $3 million, it’s a fantastic bargain.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.