Teachable Moment: Fake News and Critical Media Literacy

The great and urgent paradox of twenty-first century America is trying to discover the truth about fake news, a phenomenon spurred by the 2016 presidential election.

Fortunately, Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler have analyzed how often people viewed fake news to help us understand that elusive truth:

[W]e find that approximately one in four Americans visited a fake news website, but that consumption was disproportionately observed among Trump supporters for whom its largely pro-Trump content was attitude-consistent. However, this pattern of selective exposure was heavily concentrated among a small subset of people — almost six in ten visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of Americans with the most conservative information diets. Finally, we specifically identify Facebook as the most important mechanism facilitating the spread of fake news and show that fact-checking largely failed to selectively reach consumers of fake news.

Since these researchers identified that about 65 million Americans consumed fake news during the study period and that fake news constituted about “2.6% of all the articles Americans read on sites focusing on hard news topics during this period,” everyone interested in facts and truth are justified in considering ways in which we all can combat the negative impact of fake news, not only on our democracy but also on all ways of life in a free society.

This urgency is especially relevant to educators, andGuess, Nyhan, and Reifler’s study speaks directly to the need for teachers at every grade level to incorporate critical media literacy into the education of all students.

To meet that need, co-editor Christian Z. Goering (University of Arkansas) and I have collected a series of essays in Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America because critical media literacy, we argue, may well be the only thing between a free people and their freedom.

CML Goering Thomas cover

In Chapter 1: An Introduction, Chris and I explain:

Turning … to Kellner and Share (2007), we define critical media literacy for the purposes of this volume as “an educational response that expands the notion of media literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies” (p. 59) and “focuses on the ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality” (p. 60). It is the goal of this volume to build the aptitude and skill set of students and their teachers for critical media literacy in hopes for a better tomorrow. (p. 3)

And then, in Chapter 2: An Educator’s Primer, I offer some foundational concepts as well (excerpted next).

Being an educator at any level—K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education—has always been a challenge in the U.S. since formal education in theory is linked to preserving our democracy. Being a critical educator at any level in the U.S. has always been and remains nearly impossible because formal education in practice is more about enculturation and maintaining the status quo than seeking the social equity that remains elusive despite our claimed ideals as a people.

With the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, the media punditry has become obsessed, as has Trump, with fake news and post-truth public discourse. In this volume committed to investigating and interrogating fake news and post-truth discourse in the context of curriculum and instruction grounded in critical media literacy goals, we offer the foundational opportunity for educators to consider and reconsider the nature of truth/Truth, knowledge, and facts both in the teaching/learning dynamic and throughout mainstream media and all sorts of public discourse, notably by and about political discourse.

First, let’s establish the terms and contexts essential to understanding and then teaching critical media literacy:

  • “Fake news” is a technical term (although most public discourse fails to adhere to this technical distinction) that identifies mostly on-line information that is intentionally false and provocative, designed to be click-bait and drive internet traffic and thus revenue.
  • “Satire” is purposefully distorted information that assumes readers/viewers recognize the information is not factual, but intended to make larger points. The Onion, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, The Daily Show, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight are examples of satire packaged in seemingly credible formats, parodies of traditional news media.
  • “Post-truth” is a relatively newer term for the popular and often right-wing embracing of (and misunderstanding) post-modernism’s challenge to the objective nature of truth/Truth. Not to oversimplify, but post-modernism argues that truth/Truth is defined by whoever is in power (not an objective reality), while the contemporary popular and right-leaning political embracing of “post-truth” is more akin to “the truth is whatever I say it is regardless of any evidence or the credibility of evidence.”
  • Mainstream journalism functions under two important and corrupting norms: (1) journalists (just as educators are implored to be) maintain a stance of objectivity and neutrality, an apolitical pose, and thus (2) most mainstream examinations of topics, debates, and events are framed as “both sides” journalism, rendering all positions as equally credible and valid. For example, the mainstream media, as John Oliver has exposed, gives the general public the false notion that climate change has as many scientists for as against the “theory,” a term read by the public as “hypothesis.”

As noted parenthetically above, to embrace teaching critical media literacy (in conjunction with critical pedagogy and critical literacy) is disrupting the traditional norm that educators remain apolitical. This volume’s authors recognize that educators face tremendous hurdles for teaching critical media literacy: eroding job security with the dismantling of unions (and absence historically of unions in many regions of the U.S.), increasing accountability for student test scores on exams that are reductive and demand of students far less in their literacy than critical media literacy (in other words, our efforts to teach critical media literacy can be disregarded with “that isn’t on the test”), and deteriorating teaching and learning conditions such as overcrowded classrooms and more teachers inadequately prepared to teach (such as Teach For America candidates).

None the less, if we genuinely believe in universal public education as a key mechanism for democracy and individual liberty then we educators must be well versed in critical media literacy, and then we must make that central to our classrooms. Throughout this chapter, the intersections of media and education are examined in order to highlight the power and dangers inherent in fake news, post-truth discourse, and traditional calls for educators and journalists to be objective, apolitical.


Reference

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy is not an option. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 59-69.

See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Adichie’s “danger of a single story” and the Rise of Post-Truth Trumplandia

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Why Education: Critical Literacy, Freedom, and Equity

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Testing, the Problem Not the Solution

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Imagine a world where being a runner is held in high regard, well above students’ aptitude in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

Teacher A at XYZ Elementary School takes her third-grade class out to the school track, lining them up to run the 100-meter dash to set a baseline of data for determining the fastest runners in the class.

Across town at ABC Elementary School, Teacher Z ushers her third-graders to the high school to establish her baseline data, sending off these children on 2 laps of the 5K cross country trails.

Mid-year, Student J transfers from XYZ Elementary School, where J had placed 1st in the initial 100-meter dash, to ABC Elementary School just in time for the year-end 10K to assign final grades.

J had excelled all year in the 40-yard dash, but floundered at the 10K, not able to finish the run and receiving an I for third grade, thus was retained.

In this brief allegory, we should confront the realities about high-stakes testing that are often muted by our blind faith in the perennial existence of tests such as IQ testing, state standards-based testing, and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT:

  • Regardless of standards, curriculum, textbooks, or even what teachers teach in the classroom, as Gerald Bracey has warned: What you test is what you get (WYTIWYG).
  • The testing format and context (see above the 100-meter dash v. a 10K) have a significant impact on the outcomes; in the thought experiment, which student is labeled a “fast runner” changes because of the type of test, not necessarily the abilities or even effort by the teachers and the students.
  • Pre- and post-testing are not as effective or fair as we tend to assume—notably since the real world includes a great deal of transient students. (Caution: A universal set of standards, curriculum, and tests may solve this problem, but cannot address the first two bullets above.)
  • What is tested and how are always political decisions by some authority in power. This confirms that all testing is political and that no testing is objective or neutral.
  • Testing is always reductive (giving evaluative power to a limited but claimed representative set of acts over behaviors that require more time and greater nuance) and serves mostly goals of efficiency, not goals of authenticity.

Now let’s turn to the soap opera that is education reform, fatally committed to the accountability paradigm (ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests—all promised to be better than those before, even as those before were declared the best ever)

First, let’s visit Chicago, PARCC pushback prompts Illinois to remake controversial test for 3rd-8th graders:

Math and reading exams known as PARCC spawned angst and outright rebellion when the tests launched in 2015, ushering in a new era of state testing in Illinois public schools.

But that new era appears to be short-lived, with this spring’s PARCC exams possibly the last for the state’s third- to eighth-grade students, educators say.

Here is yet one more brick removed from the crumbling wall of Common Core—a standards revolution that guaranteed world-class standards and tests that would usher in a new era of education reform across the U.S.

Next, and related, while the Common Core wall crumbles, and the concurrent rush to hold teachers accountable for student test scores on those Common Core tests flounders, one of the primary advocates and funders of the Common Core disaster has been Bill Gates and his foundation.

Interesting to note, then, that once again, as Nancy Flanagan details, Gates has changed his tune in the wake of his most recent promises failing:

Looks like Bill Gates, having totally solved the common standards problem, mastered the vexing “teacher evaluation using student test data” challenge, and designed right-sized schools, is now moving deeper into the heart of what has traditionally been teachers’ core professional work. Curriculum, that is.

“Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science,” Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as “an area where we feel like we’ve underinvested.”

And third, even internationally, the default urge in education reform is not only new testing, but more: Setting more exams to combat stress among school students is utterly absurd.

As I warned three years ago, Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different.

In fact, educators for well over three decades have warned that accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing has never been the appropriate reform mechanism for the core problems facing universal public education: crippling inequity in both the lives and formal education of the most vulnerable students.

Tests, then, are the problem and not the solution.

Tests are a distraction, keeping our gaze on students and teachers and away from the inherent inequity of the tests themselves—instruments of those in power who decide what matters and how by what is tested and how.

In education, the problem has never been about the quality of tests (or standards, or curriculum, or textbooks) but about the presence of those tests and the power they wield.

We remain trapped in refusing to learn the bitter lessons from chasing better tests.


See Also

Thinking about Tests and Testing: A Short Primer in “Assessment Literacy,” Gerald Bracey

Seventeen reasons why football is better than high school, Herb Childress

Recommended: On Peer Review and Gatsby

I was surprised and humbled to discover through social media two excellent blogs that included some of my blogging in order to extend the conversation about peer review when teaching writing and teaching The Great Gatsby.

I strongly recommend both of the following:

The Writing Fog: Flipping Feedback: Revising Peer Review, Amy Vujaklija

Reading Graphs and Economic Trends: The “Great Gatsby Curve,” Lauren Zucker

The Writing Center Dilemma

In What’s Wrong with Writing Centers, Rose Jacobs reports on Lori Salem’s “quantitative analysis of Temple University’s writing center, which she has directed since 1999. The assistant vice provost wanted to understand its role by investigating who doesn’t visit as well as who does.” Salem discovered:

[T]hat practices that are near-orthodoxy in writing centers — such as nondirective instruction, in which tutors prompt students to come up with the right answers themselves; and a resistance to focusing on grammatical errors — cater to individuals who already have a strong grounding in grammar and composition, the sort of students who never turn up. That leaves the most frequent visitors underserved: female students, minority students, and those who grew up speaking a language other than English at home.

Salem admits her study is just a beginning since it focuses on one center at one university, but as someone who has been teaching writing for almost four decades, both as a high school English teacher and a college professor of first-year and upper-level writing courses, I can confirm that many of the dilemmas uncovered by Salem ring disturbingly true.

Those two distinctly different teaching experiences have shaped me within a broader unifying way: I have mostly taught myself how to teach writing, having only one real formal experience with learning how to teach writing through the National Writing Project’s summer institute. I don’t have any degree in composition, and didn’t formally study composition in any undergraduate or graduate courses.

As a high school teacher for almost twenty years, I learned mostly by trial-and-error, and then was saved by my regional NWP affiliate, the Spartanburg Writing Project, where I also was a co-lead instructor for a few summers before heading to higher education full time.

But the last decade has been an incredibly fertile and difficult journey with how writing is taught in higher education. I have been teaching first-year writing, along with an upper-level writing course, and I briefly held a small administrative role in guiding our first-year seminars.

Over that time, my university has (finally) formalized a writing program by naming a Director of Writing Programs and seeking ways to make the writing and media lab and program more cohesive (adding the upper-level writing/research requirement to the curriculum, for example). The teaching of writing is also being more directly addressed by creating Faculty Writing Fellows, faculty who participate in a year-long seminar addressing writing instruction.

As I have participated in and witnessed these recent growing pains at my university, I can offer some anecdotal, but I think credible, observations that match well with Salem’s research:

  • Writing instruction at the course/class/individual faculty level suffers from a lack of purpose and cohesion without a school/college unifying mission and set of shared goals. In other words, how does any class/course contribute to some set of outcomes related to writing all students should have experiences in as integral to graduating?
  • Class-level writing instruction and writing centers/labs must guard against two corrosive but alluring perspectives: (1) viewing writing instruction as remediation, and (2) seeing any course or session on “how to write” as some sort of one-shot inoculation against “errors” (a deficit view).
  • Both learning to writing and teaching writing are journeys, and must remain grounded in clearly defined contexts. Disciplinary writing in high school and college is much different than becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. For example, composition faculty and K-12 English teachers define “writing workshop” differently than creative writing faculty (think MFA).
  • Teaching writing always involves tension among concerns about craft, content, and correctness. A writing program, and writing center practices, must address how these elements will be taught as well as how each is weighted (not if, but when, how, and why). Many who come to teaching writing from disciplines outside English or composition are over-concerned with correctness (teaching writing is correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage) and significantly focused on disciplinary content and the logic of student claims, evidence, and elaboration in writing.
  • Teaching writing is enhanced by those teachers being writers themselves, but this expectation must be navigated carefully since few faculty are writers and some may write mostly out of necessity, not out of a drive to be writers.
  • The inequity unmasked by Salem’s study often presents itself in the teaching of writing through which students receive what instruction. So-called reluctant or remedial students (disproportionately black, brown, and/or poor) receive instruction on correctness (grammar, mechanics, usage) often in isolation (worksheets on skills) and are allowed or required to compose very little or not at all. The so-called advanced or gifted students (disproportionately white and affluent) compose more often and are allowed to venture into “creative” writing, experimentation, and choice. These instructional choices perpetuate inequity.

Writing centers and programs, then, are necessarily integral parts of equity and academic goals in any school, college, or university. Students must be better served at the class/course level as well as over the entire school/college experience through a cohesive writing program that rejects seeing the teaching of writing as remediation or an inoculation, but embraces authentic purposeful instruction.

Just as Salem’s data show that students view writing centers as ineffectual, thus unimportant, faculty often marginalize the status of teaching writing—something to be done by someone else or not relevant to their discipline.

Writing, however, is an essential tool of not only students and academics, but also being fully human.

Learning to write and teaching writing are both being mis-served in formal education, with the shortcomings of writing centers as one example, and as a consequence, so are our students and those charged to teach them.


For Further Consideration

Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?, Lori Salem

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education, Ann L. Mullen

Differences in College Access and Choice among Racial/Ethnic Groups: Identifying Continuing Barriers, Sylvia Hurtado, Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, Charlotte Briggs and Byung-Shik Rhee

Minimal Marking, Richard H. Haswell

Why Senior Faculty Should Teach First-Year Students, Randall Smith

Wherefore Capitalism?

The yin and yang of dystopian speculative/science fiction, George Orwell’s dark 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s light Brave New World, share a common motif about the consequences of both any contemporary and future human cultures: Love is so dangerous to power that power always seeks ways to eradicate love.

In Orwell’s other world, fascism simply bans love, and for Winston and Julia, their love is an act of rebellion. Huxley’s brilliant alternative is incredibly disturbing in its prescience since love is sacrificed on the alter of distraction—monogamy is taboo and recreational promiscuity is the norm along with the ever-present soma.

As a result, Orwell’s warning feels speculative, and Huxley’s reads chilling because we can more easily see his fiction in our recent history (the sexual revolution of the 1960s) and in every single “right now” we encounter.

In 2018, citizens of the U.S. are nearly eternally distracted—the sexless and loveless virtual other world of our devices—mired as we are in our consumerism and the Social Darwinism of capitalism.

While I was thinking directly about Orwell’s 1984 when I wrote “fascism”—”fascism always comes for love/fascists know that lovers always win every battle”—and the risk taken by Winston and Julia “in quest of rendezvous or tobetogether,” I am more compelled by Huxley Brave New World—not as some dire warning about a possible future, but a very powerful analysis of what we face today.

As Margaret Atwood argues in her Introduction to Brave New World:

Surely it’s time to look again at Brave New World and to examine its arguments for and against the totally planned society it describes, in which ‘everybody is happy now’. What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?

I am drawn to Atwood’s word choice, “pay,” and it is there I ask, Wherefore capitalism?

I am struggling with a sub-question to that as well: Did humans create capitalism or has capitalism created a brave new world, a new inhumane humanity, one perilously close to having our most precious gift next to life, love, erased?

Has the Western world (a code for “America”) so pervaded the entire world that no place remains unscathed from this consumerism/capitalism that consumes us?

In 1891, Oscar Wilde protested: “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”

And Wilde concluded about the materialism of capitalism: “But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”

So it is another work of speculative/science fiction, a label rejected by the author, that speaks directly to the corrosive power of capitalism as the enemy of love, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. A brilliant satire of religion and politics, the novel includes a scene in which John fails to understand that Mona, the woman he claims to love, “adored her promiscuity”; in Vonnegut’s faux-religion, Bokononism, promiscuity is the full embracing of love, unlike promiscuity as a distraction from love in Huxley.

And they argue:

“As your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself.”

She stared at me with widening eyes. “A sin-wat!”

“What was that?”

“A sin-wat!” she cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.”

…”Bokonon tells us it is very wrong not to love everyone exactly the same. What does your religion say?”

Resting beneath this exchange are the central tenets of Christianity expressed by Jesus as two simple commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Resting beneath this exchange is the implicit message that the Western world worships capitalism and consumerism, that Westerners who claim to be Christians do so only in word, not action.

John can express his claim of love for Mona only in his ownership of Mona, a commodification of affection as if love is a finite thing to be obtained.

As we “scuttl[e] across the floors of silent seas” toward Valentine’s Day, then, we cannot ignore the distractions before us as good consumers and very marginal lovers—as disconnected from all sorts of unconditional love, familial and romantic, as the well-conditioned cast in Huxley’s Brave New World.

I was first introduced to the idea that god did not create humans, but humans created god through reading Karl Marx as a naive college student, a redneck who made mostly As.

I am compelled now many decades later to lament that humans may have created capitalism, but capitalism has created a not-so-brave new humanity. And in the process, while we have been distracted by fear-mongering about fascism, capitalism did its job.

And the price?

All it cost us was love.

When Think Tank Opinion on Policy Is Driven by Advocacy, Refute Them: A Reader

Last night in my new upper-level writing course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, we waded into critical discourse analysis, followed by practicing those moves on a picture book, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type.

Next, we shifted to small groups so students could also practice analyzing media coverage of education—a key component of their assignments that require comparing media narratives about key education topics to the research base on that topic. I provided the small groups with an Op-Ed on teacher recruitment and retention from the local paper and 10 (More) Reasons Why the U.S. Education System Is Failing from Education Week.

One group noticed this EdWeek commentary cited The Brookings Institute, and as I and one of our texts (Bracey, 2006) have stressed, when analyzing media claims about educational research, we must all critically investigate anything coming from think tanks.

So I was primed for my Twitter feed this morning when I noticed Peter Greene’s Still Pushing the Common Core—a sharp and thorough unpacking of The Brookings Institutes’ misguided When public opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them:

Among the living dead that stumble through the graveyard of failed education ideas, we can still find our old friend, the Common Core State [sic] Standards. Like an undead Tinker Bell, as long as someone’s willing to clap for the damned thing, it will keep coming back.

This time the applause is coming from Brookings, an institution devoted to the notion that economists can be experts in anything. The actual research they’re highlighting was produced by a research grant from the USC Rossier School of Education, and written up by Stephen Aguilar, Morgan Polikoff, and Gale Sinatra, all of the Rossier School. Polikoff is a familiar name in the ed reform world, and he can sometimes be found conducting serious research. This is not one of those times.

Echoing Greene’s last point, I stressed last night that Brookings often produced solid reports, despite Greene’s caution (“economists can be experts in anything”); in fact, I routinely promote the work of Andre Perry, a Brookings Fellow.

After reading Greene’s analysis, I clicked on the Brookings report and immediately scanned the footnotes, noticing that the report includes none of the thorough reports and comprehensive research on two very important issues related to the Common Core debate: (1) the standards movement has shown over more than three decades of constantly creating and implementing new standards that there is almost no clear correlation between the quality or presence of standards and better student outcomes, and (2) careful analyses of Common Core have shown that these standards show no promise of overcoming that clear trend.

Instead of taking the necessary larger step back and away from the cult of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, as Greene explains:

The paper purports to be about correcting misperceptions and misunderstandings about public policy, but I think it’s better understood as a study of how to better sculpt PR to market your policy idea. And in this case they’re looking at how to better manage the PR for Common Core.

Yes, as someone who lives in the Tea-Party-turned-Trumplandia Upstate of South Carolina, I witnessed the yard signs protesting the Common Core, a heaping mess of anti-Obama misconceptions.

But what Brookings fails to acknowledge, trapped as they are in the “better standards” delusion, is that Common Core advocates were mostly just as misinformed as the ideologues attacking Common Core as a proxy for the Obama agenda.

Why not conduct some research on that? Maybe: When political opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them.

Or better yet: Bitter lessons from chasing better standards [1].

(Hint: Think tanks are mostly all-in on education reform for the sake of education reform and too often bereft of critical education scholars.)

And thus, here is another hint: In this Groundhog Day adventure in standards [2], there has been absolutely no absence of solid evidence-based and critical responses to the Common Core movement. The problem, repeated again by this Brookings report, is the “rigid refusal” to acknowledge the failure of the accountability/standards/high-stakes testing silo approach to education reform.

Along with suggesting you read Greene, then, let me offer a reader, one I am certain will once again be ignored since it makes a case the education reform crowd simply does not want to acknowledge:

Finally, there is a nugget in this Brookings misfire that deserves some attention:

Despite largely falling off the political radar (neither President Trump nor Secretary DeVos has talked much about Common Core in the last year except to say that it is dead),[3] the standards are still an important topic. More than 40 states are still implementing the standards or a very close variant thereof.[4] Billions are still being spent on curriculum materials and professional development.

As I noted in the AlterNet piece linked above, the pursuit of better (and ever-new) standards and better (and ever-new) high-stakes tests is mostly a financial boondoggle for the textbook and testing industries as well as a careless financial drain on educational funding (tax-payers’ money).

Framing any standards debate, then, as simply a PR problem is more than lazy; it is careless and ultimately yet another remedy that is part of the disease.


[1] Bitter Lessons from Chasing Better Tests

[2] I am seeking a second-level metaphor since Greene aptly used the zombie comparison.