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Teaching Opinion

‘We Need to Teach Our Students to Be Smart Consumers of Information’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 25, 2019 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways teachers can help students combat “fake news” and develop information-literacy skills?

Information literacy has always been an important skill, and its importance has skyrocketed in the social-media age.

Today, we’ll hear responses from Carla Truttman, Josh Perlman, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Bryan Goodwin, and Frank W. Baker.

You might also be interested in The Best Tools & Lessons for Teaching Information Literacy.

Though I’m not hosting radio shows this summer to accompany blog posts, you can still listen to past BAM! Radio Shows. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Carla Truttman

Carla Truttman teaches social studies and English/language arts at Yreka High School located in a small, rural town in far Northern California. She is also the inservice co-director for the Northern California Writing Project and a member of the National Writing Project’s C3WP leadership team:


Propaganda or “fake news” is not a new concept; however, it has risen to an entirely new level, and it is essential we teach students the necessary information-literacy skills to critically analyze the overwhelming amounts of information they are bombarded with daily. Our students’ need to navigate the information-age calls for a shift in our expectations of how students engage in our classrooms. We need to teach our students to be smart consumers of information with a healthy dose of skepticism and the essential skills they need to critically analyze and process information. Students should have multiple, recursive, iterative opportunities to practice information-literacy skills until these skills become inherent in their consumption of information.

Routine Argument Writing strategies suggested by the National Writing Project’s College, Career and Community Writers’ Program (C3WP) use engaging, up-to-date materials to teach discrete reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in informal, low-stakes ways which encourage students to voice opinions, listen to others, ask questions, research for new information, and understand how opinions can evolve over time. Routine Argument Writing activities happen daily in my classroom. These activities have replaced traditional journal writing and take between 5 and 15 minutes at the beginning of every class period. I think intentionally and purposefully to design curriculum with these principles in mind:

Create a Secure Learning Environment - Students today hesitate to question information or offer an opinion about information for fear of being wrong. Students need to feel safe enough to ask questions, voice their opinion, argue their point of view, and change their mind. Low-stakes, high-interest, and informal routines help students feel secure enough to engage in materials in a way they never have before—to shift from the teacher-directed learning model to a more collaborative classroom experience. This shift will take time. The suggested structure challenges much of what they have been taught to expect in school. We’re changing the game, so to speak, and we must provide lots of opportunities for students to practice navigating and mastering the new reality.

Design Relevant, Current, and Connected Curriculum - Student engagement largely depends on student interest, and Routine Argument Writing activities provide wonderful opportunities to help students make connections between the world they live in now and the curriculum you are teaching. Draw inspiration from the headlines, social-media posts, music lyrics, movies, etc. The materials used in these activities are likely to be part of the stream of information students might be processing in real time. The use of current, relevant information serves three important purposes: (1) it meets students where they are; (2) it helps students see themselves in the curriculum they are studying; and (3) it creates opportunities to teach students about valid sources of information vs. “fake news.” For example, using articles, videos, headlines, interviews, etc., from the current “Me Too” Movement during Routine Argument Writing activities while teaching Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a great way to help student appreciate the connections between Stamps, Ark., a century ago and living in America today.

“Fake news” is not going away, so we must provide our students with the skills necessary to recognize it and the confidence to call it out when they see it. Daily Routine Argument Writing activities provide the means to achieve both of these essential goals.

Response From Josh Perlman

Josh Perlman teaches U.S. history and AP European history at Flintridge Preparatory School, a 7-12 independent school near Los Angeles, where he is also History Department chair:

The proliferation of false news in recent years has been echoed by a proliferation of recommendations about how to deal with it. Sifting through hyperlinks to determine which newfangled initiative rises to the challenge of our ever-evolving media landscape is hard work. With tension between standardized testing and student-centered pedagogies already increasing teachers’ cognitive load, the mandate to combat “fake news” can seem simply one more passing fad, sapping energy from teachers’ core mandates to shore up students’ knowledge and critical thinking.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, I’ve found that the skills involved in combating misinformation are in fact the very skills that students need to succeed on standardized tests such as the AP, as well as to develop the pluck and curiosity that student-centered pedagogies prize.

One core skill students can transfer to their media consumption is the assessment of primary sources for bias. At first, students routinely struggle with sources that seem objective, asserting, for example, “This source simply reports facts and is therefore reliable.” Our challenge is to get students thinking about how factors external to the source itself, such as the author’s identity, audience, and purpose, may produce subtle distortions in the text itself.

The best writing on critical media engagement encourages the same reflex, prodding students to “read laterally” and open up new tabs on the author and publisher of a given article. Snopes, Politifact, and Factcheck.org often have information on trending articles, while resources such as ICANN WHOIS allow students to determine who holds the registration of a given domain.

Unfortunately, many educator resources consist of checklists that encourage students to focus on the website in question. While these guidelines may be effective in sniffing out obvious “tells,” such as bizarre URLs, research shows that these checklists fail to tip off students to more sophisticated misinformation, such as “astro-turfing” by well-funded special interests. Checklists, therefore, run the risk of creating false confidence while doing little to develop transferable critical thinking.

Our historical moment has produced many tools to help students scrutinize internet news. One of my favorites is Factitious, a video game which tests students’ news saviness and trains them to focus less on the content of the article than on its source.

However, maintaining a long list of web-savvy tools, each of which may become obsolete, is less helpful to our students in the long run than cultivating inquisitive and skeptical habits of mind.

My favorite way to do this is to frame essential questions that call students’ attention to the politics behind the production of knowledge. For example, one of the three essential questions in my 11thgrade U.S. history course this fall was: “What are the myths of American history? When and why were they created, and why do we believe them?” We scrutinized iconic visual sources such as Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre and Jean Ferris’s 1912 painting First Thanksgiving—comparing evidence from the most reliable primary sources with these more famous representations, then inquiring about what ideological agendas led to exaggerations and omissions. We homed in on the motives of a key revolutionary propagandist, as well as the patronizing attitudes of an Anglo-Saxon elite toward immigrants during the Progressive era. In this process, we also excavated the emotional appeals that make mythic archetypes such as the bloodthirsty Redcoats and the charitable Pilgrims so appealing and politically useful.

As one student observed, “In 5th grade, we learned a story that made us feel good about our country and ourselves. Maybe that was the point.”

To retain a resilient and flexible framework for media skepticism, students must develop the habit of looking beyond every story to examine the motives of its storyteller.

Response From Jennifer Casa-Todd

Jennifer Casa-Todd is currently a teacher-librarian, a former literacy consultant and English teacher, and the author of Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership. She uses technology and social media to learn and share learning, empower and celebrate others, and make a positive impact on others. She is deeply passionate about shining a light on kids and their adult mentors who are making a difference on and offline:

Teacher librarians and English teachers have always been about showing students how to find credible resources. It’s been a decade since I showed kids the fake Tree Octopus website, and so many of them fall for it every time. In an age where “fake news” seems to be rampant, research has shown that middle schoolers in a 2016 Stanford study could not differentiate between a credible news article and an advertisement. In order to combat this, we need to look at where kids (and adults) get their news sources: social media. Using a class account (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook), you can have Fake News Fridays where you focus in on an article and what it looks like within that social-media site. Using a “think aloud” to begin, the teacher unpacks the questions that need to be posed in order to determine whether the source is legitimate. You may use, SMELL or SOURCE as a springboard for asking questions about the source of a text. There needs to be a gradual release of responsibility here with kids then working with a small group and then a partner to ask questions and eventually doing it on their own.

For older students, I have them search their own social-media feed and provide the article or post for the class to consider. Kids find this challenging, but they also try to challenge their classmates.

Conversations about “fake news” need to be ongoing, in context, and need to help kids develop strategies to do the critical thinking on their own—this is what lifelong learning is all about. Fake News Fridays cultivates a culture of questioning which students need to take with them as they consume media.

Response From Bryan Goodwin

Bryan Goodwin is the CEO of Denver-based McREL International. He thrives on translating research into practice, scanning the world for new insights and best practices on teaching and leading, and helping educators everywhere adapt them to address their own challenges. A frequent conference presenter, he is the author of Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success, and co-author of The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching and Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School. Before joining McREL in 1998, Bryan was a college instructor, a high school teacher, and an award-winning business journalist:

I’ve got some bad news and some good news when it comes to fake news. The bad news is we’re often suckers for fake news because we’re all susceptible to what psychologists call “confirmation bias"―a propensity to accept information that supports our view and disregard data that doesn’t. So, when we see a story that confirms our beliefs, our naturally tendency is to believe it.

Combating “fake news” thus requires helping students to exercise their brains in a more effortful way, teaching them to read not just with comprehension, but also discernment―in short, applying critical thinking to what they’re reading. True, many adults, have failed to develop this skill. Nonetheless―and herein lies the good news―we can teach it to students.

So, what exactly is critical thinking? As it turns out, it’s a constellation of skills that apply to corresponding subject matter―for example, we apply scientific thinking to science, textual analysis to literature, and quantitative reasoning in mathematics. Add them up and you get “critical thinking.”

Sometimes educators―at all levels, including prestigious colleges―assume critical thinking develops through osmosis. Let’s expose students to great literature, laboratory science experiments, and debates about history and voila, they’ll turn into critical thinkers.

As it turns out, they don’t.

Instead, as I note in an article I wrote for a regular research column in Educational Leadership magazine, we must show students how to develop critical-thinking skills by doing the following:

Teach it directly. Since critical thinking is all about getting to the heart of the matter, it makes little sense to approach it obliquely. Lessons that have critical thinking “embedded” in them do nothing to teach the critical-thinking skills themselves. These need to be taught explicitly. Examples include showing students how to analyze data for validity, interpret graphs, observe correlations, and identify cause and effect.

Don’t teach it in a vacuum. Critical thinking is a skill we apply to new information―something students ought to encounter in every subject every day. Thus, critical thinking can be taught in the context of actual subject matter. And we can do this in three simply ways: classroom dialogue and discussion, complex problem solving, and mentoring. The studies that gave rise to this observation show that effective critical-thinking instruction can (and likely must) be simultaneously taught directly and entwined with subject-matter content.

Start with “because.” Let’s get even more practical. Here’s a simple classroom technique you can use tomorrow for students at any level: Challenge students to support their assertions by tacking on a clause that begins with “because” (“I know this is the strongest argument because . . .”). You can help students see that often it takes a whole chain of “because” statements to bolster an argument. Then you can help them use this skill to develop a little voice in the back of their heads to question what they’re reading online and sort out the gems from the junk.

Response From Frank W. Baker

Frank W. Baker is a media education consultant who helps educators identify ways to engage students with media literacy and critical thinking. His newest book, Close Reading the Media, is published by Routledge/MiddleWeb. He shares many resources at The Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and tweets @fbaker. He can be reached at fbaker1346@gmail.com:

My previous work in broadcast journalism, public education, and public television informs my response here.

I believe teachers could start by first engaging students in better understanding the news-gathering process itself. Most young people consume the news but most don’t have an idea of how it is gathered and reported. One way to begin here would be to invite a print or broadcast journalist into the classroom so that students begin to understand and appreciate exactly what a reporter does and how they go about doing what they do.

When students consume the news—whether that’s from social media, an actual newspaper, or via television—they’re probably doing so passively.

Media-literacy education emphasizes “active viewing” and “critical thinking.”

Media literacy, like information literacy, involves critical inquiry—asking questions. In media literacy, those questions include, but are not limited to:

- who is the author or creator of the message?
- who is the audience for the message; how do you know?
- what techniques does the author use to make a message credible?
- who or what might be omitted and why?
- who might benefit from this message?

Recently, I was asked to speak to school librarians and to recommend some ways they might begin to address “fake news”.

I decided to take an example from a website and have them analyze/deconstruct it.

The example I used was “President Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge of Allegiance in Schools.”

I used a handout of that website and asked the educators to tell me what was true and what wasn’t about the content of the page.

Of course, any educator can use the critical-thinking questions from one of the many “fake news” infographics that are out there, including the excellent CRAAP Detection Analysis.

I have recommended that librarians, and other educators, consider posting these “critical-thinking” questions adjacent to every computer so that students get accustomed to seeing it, referring to it, and using it.

Finally, if you read any news story about fake news in the last year-and-a-half, no doubt that story also referenced media literacy and included a series of recommendations. I snagged those recommendations and compiled them into a website I now call FAKE NEWS REMEDY RECOMMENDATIONS.

I hope you’ll consider some of the many resources there to use when you engage your students in better understanding “fake news.”

Thanks to Carla, Josh, Jennifer, Bryan, and Frank for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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