We are facing tremendous challenges in educating our students in Los Angeles County and around the country. From changing public health protocols, to helping kids catch up from the previous two years of pandemic disruption, one thread is woven through all the issues we face: widespread misinformation.
Misinformation has divided us and slowed progress. And as it relates to Covid-19 testing and vaccinations, it has caused harm to many of our students, staff and their families.
This summer, the Los Angeles County Office of Education convened focus groups with parents in five districts to find out where they stood on the pandemic and their children’s return to school. In speaking to families all over the county, we have heard misunderstandings about the dangers of Covid-19, as well as untrue concerns regarding vaccines.
How we address the issue is the big question. Teaching how to identify misinformation is new, and we do not presume to have all the answers, but one thing is clear — we must start these conversations immediately.
Misinformation is content that is false, inaccurate or misleading, even if it is spread unintentionally. A 2016 research study by the Stanford Education Research Group showed that many young people (not unlike adults) often can’t tell the difference between a real news story and “sponsored content” (or an advertisement). Yet, young people also say they want help learning how to investigate news and information in the digital age. In fact, 84% of youth surveyed nationally by the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics said they thought that they and their friends would benefit from instruction in how to tell if a given source of online news was trustworthy.
In fact, studies have shown that passive sharing rather than intentional malice, could be the bigger issue in spreading misinformation. The diffusion of misinformation has been exacerbated by our everyday quick, low-cost and relatively easy access to online content and social media. Our students and families, like most Americans, are vulnerable to misinformation because it is targeted and abundant.
We know from research that younger people’s age, not their political beliefs, lead them to believe and share misinformation. Based on this critical information, we, as educators, can model for our students how to fact-check what they read and hear, question whether the information they are seeing has already been fact-checked and determine if the sources of information are authentic and reliable. Training students to question the authenticity and accuracy of information they encounter will help them become independent thinkers and informed citizens.
We must provide students with basic media literacy — teaching them about the historic role of the free press, the various types of new reporting and current threats to freedom of expression, as well the historical role of misinformation and propaganda.
We can also help students understand the power of “pressing pause” when determining the “truth” of information. We are accustomed to instant gratification or quickly responding to social media — usually by sharing it with friends. This is particularly true with young people. However, encouraging students to question sources and think critically before sharing questionable information is the first step.
Currently, there are many tools and programs being used by school districts and educators, with more being developed. Seeking accurate information on controversial issues is key to this work in order to understand the complexity of problems facing society before proposing viable solutions. The California Democracy School Initiative, led by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, provides professional development, resources and recognition to schools dedicated to engaging students in civic learning projects that address real-world problems in effective, responsible ways. (California Democracy Schools are designed to institutionalize civic learning in high schools to prepare all students for college, career, and citizenship in the 21st century.)
Additionally, we encourage students and teachers to use the civic online reasoning tools found on the Stanford History Education website, which are extremely useful in helping students evaluate online information for accuracy. We have also seen good results through trusted platforms such as ProCon.org that provide accurate, verifiable information offering pro and con arguments to a number of current issues. Many California Democracy Project schools utilize these resources and many others to help students navigate fact from fiction.
Misinformation is plaguing our communities by making it hard to discern the truth during the pandemic. There are no simple or easy solutions. As educators, we can provide strategies and tips to help our students and their families tackle misinformation.
Young people are powerful agents for educating their parents and other family members. If educators teach students how to verify misinformation, they will pass on those tools in their community.
Together, we can begin helping students navigate this confusing and overwhelming world by introducing ideas and approaches that will last a lifetime.
Debra Duardo is the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools, overseeing 80 K-12 school districts that serve 2 million students.
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