Fake news is nothing new. In fact, some of our country's most significant and important events were, in part, shaped by what we could consider fake news. The hysteria of the Salem Witch trials was spurred by rumor and church endorsed reports of witchcraft. Many patriots of the American Revolution were inspired by Paul Revere's deeply biased and partly inaccurate depiction of the Boston Massacre. The political campaigns of some of our earliest and most esteemed presidents, men like Adams and Jefferson, were rife with sensationalistic lies about the character of their political opponents. The Mexican War and the War of 1898 were both motivated in large part by untruths spread by, in the case of the Mexican War, President Polk, and largely by the press and their political allies later in 1898. Cleary, incendiary, biased, and flatly inaccurate information has always had a place in American--and certainly human--history, and has had a significant impact on momentous events that would shape the future.
If fake news has always been a part of the human experience and has so clearly shaped our nation's past and present, why be so concerned about the phenomenon now? Is there anything different about the use and spread of inaccurate, heavily biased, or overly sensationalistic information by the press, politicians, and political commentators today? To answer that question, we need not look any further than the length our arm. The spread of online news platforms and the integration of news with social media feeds has changed the way we consume information and increasingly changed the way that information is gathered and reported upon. Instead of taking time to read thoroughly and thoughtfully, consumers of news often find themselves catching up on events while sitting at red lights, on noisy trains during a hectic commute, or while brushing their teeth at the end of the day. We consume news while doing other things and rarely take the time to deeply consider what we are reading, its purpose, the author, the intended audience, or the biases hidden in plain sight. Fake news and half-truths spread for political gain aren't anything new, but we are consuming this information in an environment primed for its spread: we read fast, we read distracted, we read with unconsidered emotion, and we share the stories that give us the most immediate validation of our own feelings and preconceived notions of the truth.
As educators, we have a responsibility to prepare our students to successfully navigate this new reality and live principled lives as informed citizens. A recent Stanford Graduate School of Education study measuring, among other things, students' ability to judge the credibility of sources, author or source bias, and overall trustworthiness of news articles, found that middle and high school students are unprepared for the challenges posed by "fake news" and lacking in the core skills to evaluate the information they find online and in social media. Preparing students to successfully navigate current media requires that we train students to read critically, consider multiple points of view, and consider central questions and understand the context of events.
In short, recognizing "fake news" and navigating the information overload available on social media and online requires core skills acquired in school. Various universities and citizenship advocacy organizations have recognized this need and have since develop curriculum packages devoted to training students to "read like a historian," as one such group at Stanford states.
At Potomac, we attempt to embrace this goal in all of our classes. By focusing not just on content acquisition but also on skill development and critical thinking, we hope to empower our students to be intrinsically curious and thoughtful consumers of information. Students engage in research, close reading activities, and primary source analysis in the humanities. In science and math, students explore multiple solutions, regularly engage in lab work, and learn to work collaboratively. Overall, we try to support a curriculum that supports critical and creative thinking, through including multiple perspectives in our curriculum and pedagogy that gives students opportunities to assess information and develop their own conclusions. When I explore materials that are being offered to teachers online that aim to help students more thoughtfully consume media, I am happy to see lessons similar to what we have long aimed to achieve in Potomac classrooms. Recent discussions of fake news and outright lies in politics and the media remind us the importance of developing habits of critical thinking and civil discourse in our students. Potomac's philosophy and core values reflect our commitment to these skills. We should remember the broader significance of these values in the daily choices we make as educators if we aim to develop empowered and civically committed citizens.