A Teacher's (Brief) Survival Guide to 'Alternative Facts'
Pop quiz: Was Trump’s inauguration crowd the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period? Did millions of people really vote illegally in the 2016 election? And what is the Bowling Green Massacre?
If you found any of these questions confusing, you aren’t alone. The truth is tricky today, when we have to discern facts from “alternative facts” and accusations of “fake news” are randomly hurled like candy at a parade.
This presents an interesting dilemma to educators, who have always been tasked with teaching students to think critically, ask intelligent questions, and find evidence-based facts. How can today’s teachers help students be responsible and informed consumers of media, all without being accused of bias?
Encourage your students to question information, whether the source is a viral Facebook meme or CNN. Why is there controversy on this topic? What does each side claim? How can we determine the facts? Arguments and evidence should be tested and critically examined, not blindly accepted.
If you simply teach your students to ask the right questions, you won’t risk being accused of forcing your own views on students. Instead of teaching them what to think, teach them how to think.
In a world where truth is spun and distorted like it’s 1984, teaching students to critically evaluate sources is more important than ever before.
Sometimes, it’s easy to see that a source is not credible. Perhaps the headline screams, “You Won’t BELIEVE This” or is riddled with misspelled words and grammar mistakes. Maybe a clearly Photoshopped image is splashed across the page.
More often, we must take a closer look to accurately evaluate a source’s credibility. Guide students to search for bias. Is the tone angry or sarcastic, indicating emotion instead of neutrality? What is the name of the source? For example, names like “Democratic Underground” or “Right Wing News” reveal an obvious spin.
Other factors to consider include the currency of the information, the author’s qualifications to write about this topic, and if other news sources are reporting the same details.
Find Supporting Evidence
Teach students to search for specific, verifiable evidence to support the claims of any news source or public figure. Statistics, quotes from experts, and photographs are all examples of acceptable evidence.
Here’s a counterexample: When White House press secretary Sean Spicer was pressed to reveal what evidence of voter fraud Trump possessed, he would say only, “He has believed that for a while based on studies and information he has.”
In this tense political climate, teachers must work hard to not take sides—striving to be as objective as possible. Do your part by teaching your students that vague “studies” and “information” are not evidence. That they must read closely, question everything, and critically evaluate sources (and supporting details) to get at the facts. And we don’t mean the alternative kind.
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