Teaching Media Literacy and Effective Search in the Age of Fake News

Information literacy has never been more important. To that end, here are some principles, tools, and learning approaches by which we guide our students:

  • Setting up research projects: We want our faculty to set up research projects so students are well equipped to strengthen their research skills through a bit of reach/struggle and they don't flail so much they're not able to find the relevant information they need. This can be particularly tricky since students are at all different levels, their research topics can vary widely, and the nature of a project also can be different from class to class and teacher to teacher. We also teach students that the answers they're seeking may not come word-for-word the way they imagine they might--for example, a resource might not say "the Monterey Pine needs 6 inches of water or more per year to survive," but it may say "Monterey Pines thrive in coastal, temperate climates," which would require some inference about how much water they need.
  • Consider the source: We teach our students to consider the source of information--wikipedia, .gov, .edu, .com, etc., and how to read for hidden bias. A great example to use for this exercise is www.martinlutherking.org. On first glance, it seems like a legitimate site for teaching students about the life and times of MLK. But a closer read reveals grotesque content pushing the white supremacist agenda. Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 2.52.22 PM
  • Effective search: We teach students how to come up with key words (most students are inclined to type an entire question, even after practice with keywords--this takes a while to develop), and we also teach them the following advanced google search tools:Search Tips for Google
  • Kid-friendly search engines: The kid-friendly search engines can be helpful, especially for younger students. They're not an absolute fix, though, as it also depends on what's available on the web on a particular subject. (In other words, some topics don't have kid-friendly materials out there, period.) Sweet Search is another good one, and sometimes entering "for kids" in a standard google search can render useful results.
  • Accommodating various reading levels: Newsela and Rewordify have functionality to help tailor/translate nonfiction info to a student's particular reading level.
  • Just-for-fun: A Google A Day is a fun way to exercise the research muscle on a daily basis. We have practiced this in class as well. In fact Google has published curriculum on teaching effective search.
  • Word clouds of relevant terms: Another idea is to have students do preliminary searches before they dive in fully on their research topic. For example, have a student read the wikipedia article on the subject and copy-paste relevant sections into a word cloud tool to see what terms occur most often in the article for that topic. If there are any major terms in the word-cloud the student doesn't know, he should research those first to get a baseline understanding of the vocabulary of what he's researching.Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 11.12.15 AM
  • BrainPop! Have students login to Brain Pop (username / password for our MCDS account available upon request) and have them watch the video(s) on their research topic(s) to develop a baseline understanding.
  • Books! Or, just take the old-fashioned approach: start with books from the MCDS library, and then move to the web to research questions the kid-friendly books didn't answer.

With such a wealth of information at our students’ fingertips, the charge becomes less about finding the right answer, and more about asking the right questions, consulting reliable sources, thinking critically, considering multiple perspectives, and synthesizing information in a meaningful way. To see a template we recently used with 5th graders to help guide them through this process, click HERE.