New media literacy standards aim to tackle ‘degradation of truth’

Teachers have always taught students how to verify and analyze information, but helping them tell fact from fiction became particularly difficult last fall.

As former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen circulated on social media and far-right news sites, students asked about conspiracy theories and lies in the classroom, and teachers struggled to find the best way to discuss and deal with misinformation.

This week, the RAND Corporation released a new set of media literacy standards designed to support schools in this task.

The standards are part of RAND’s ongoing project on “truth degradation”: a phenomenon that RAND researchers describe as “the diminishing role that facts, data and analysis play in our political and civic discourse” .

To create the list, the researchers looked at 35 sets of standards that cover media literacy in some way, including state technology skills, standards developed by the International Society for technology in education, common state standards and next-generation science standards.

There is a need for this roadmap, specifically focused on helping students identify reliable sources of information, assess arguments and distinguish between opinion and fact, said Alice Huguet, researcher in policies at RAND and first author of the report.

Media literacy can cover skills such as analyzing political messages and identifying misinformation, such as conspiracy theories or doctored images. But the term itself is a catch-all and can refer to analyzing, evaluating, and creating all kinds of communications. Existing sets of media literacy standards often cover things like keyboarding and web design.

“As we went through different media literacy standards, they didn’t always seem to apply consistently to the issues we face today,” Huguet said.

“Not just a fact check”

The RAND standards are organized into four sections:

  1. Seeking a full understanding of the facts
  2. Identify reliable sources of information
  3. Assess the credibility of the information and the merits of the arguments
  4. Engage responsibly to counter the Truth Decay

Competencies are not subject-specific; they focus on developing habits of thought — like recognizing your own knowledge limits and questioning the motivations of media makers — instead of developing knowledge about the content domain, Huguet said. “It’s a mindset that we can promote in all of our classrooms,” she said.

The standards ask students to develop strategies they can use to fill knowledge gaps, while understanding that some tools, like search engines, can limit insights. They require students to be able to assess whether sources meet certain journalistic or scientific standards, analyze whether an argument is supported by evidence, and consider how the social, political, and historical context of sources influences their meaning. And they ask students to remain open to changing their minds about issues when they encounter new information.

“One of the things we try to take from the standards is that media literacy is not just fact-checking,” Huguet said. “It’s about helping students think about this interaction they have with their digital and real environments.”

For example, the standards address the sharing of information on social media: monitoring the consequences of what is shared in digital spaces and sharing content “rooted in evidence”.

Instilling these skills in future generations could help slow some of the tendencies toward the decay of truth, such as the confluence of opinion and rumor with fact, Huguet said. “It starts somewhere,” she said. “It starts with people sharing information that might not be legitimate.”

But what if it’s not the students who believe the misinformation – like the false claim that the election was stolen – but the teachers? In the days following the uprising at the United States Capitol on January 6, some school districts learned that their employees had participated.

“It’s the hardest nut to crack,” Huguet said. “It actually reminds me of a lot of social and emotional learning. … It’s similar over there, where I hear people talking, ‘What if a teacher doesn’t have social and emotional learning skills? are they supposed to teach students about it?”

Ideally, Huguet said, schools and districts would have a holistic approach to media literacy that also helps teachers develop those skills, as some school systems have done for SEL.

The challenge of supporting teachers while supporting students “hasn’t stopped us before,” Huguet said.

Explore root causes?

Sarah McGrew, an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland College Park who studies the spread of misinformation online, agrees that it’s important to have media literacy tools specifically focused on navigating through our current information landscape. “Teachers need all the support and guidance we can give them,” she said.

But McGrew, who was not involved in writing the RAND standards and reviewed them at the request of Education Week, said she would like to focus more on how students approach rating information should change depending on the medium.

“Evaluating online information specifically requires a different set of tools than print sources,” said McGrew, who previously co-directed the Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning Project, a program intended to teach students students how to interact with political information online.

The project teaches ‘lateral reading’: when students find an unfamiliar website, they should not first spend time trying to analyze the information, but rather see what other trusted sources say about it. new source.

“You need to have a deep enough knowledge of the content to tackle anything on any topic and analyze it for bias,” as RAND standards suggest, McGrew said. Lateral reading encourages students to recognize that they don’t know everything, she says, and to lean on experts when needed.

Teaching students this understanding is the first standard on RAND’s list: “Recognize the limits of one’s own knowledge or understanding of facts.” »

Still, teaching students to seek out information to fill gaps in their knowledge isn’t enough, said Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication studies and rhetoric at Syracuse University, who studies disinformation, political communication and digital ethics. Students also need to understand that the tools they use to do this, such as search engines, are designed to feed misinformation.

For example, Phillips said, a student might hear the phrase “stop theft” — referring to the far-right movement baselessly alleging that the election was “stolen” from Trump by widespread voter fraud — and Google to understand what it means.

Sites that attempt to spread the theory use these terms, knowing that they will show up on their pages in search results. “That’s how keywords are played,” Phillips said. Teaching about misinformation should also include teaching this kind of context, she said.

The RAND standards include this (“Understanding how modern information sources and tools can limit available facts and perspectives”), but Phillips said she would like to see a more explicit focus on teaching students how we we have come to this.

“It’s not that ‘the truth has broken down,'” Phillips said. “It’s that network dynamics, the attention economy, algorithmic recommendations, and an asymmetrically polarized information ecosystem have transformed many people’s relationship to the truth.”

“We just won’t get very far if we just focus on the symptoms,” Phillips added. “And that’s going to take big, tough conversations about not just that we’re in this mess, but why.”

Discussing the root causes of misinformation in the classroom can be difficult, Phillips said, because one of its drivers is far-right media. Explaining that these outlets have “built a business model on spreading lies” can prompt claims that teachers are politically biased, Phillips said.

But teachers must face the reality that facts have become partisan, she said: “If we really care about facts, we must be prepared to call for systemic efforts to manipulate the truth.

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