I can still remember when the first Pokémon games came out (and wow does saying that make me feel old). I was in elementary school at the time, and it didn’t take long for these pocket monsters to become the talk of the class. Everyone was sharing their favorite Pokémon, challenging each other to battles, or negotiating trades in the back of the school bus. It was pretty wild. In fact, I’d wager there were several months were approximately zero learning occurred in our classroom.

It was also around this time that a rumor began to circulate. Allegedly, if you beat the four hardest bosses in the game 100 times, you’d be given a special, secret technique. This move would allow the player to reach a hidden portion of the game filled with rare Pokémon. This was, of course, nonsense, but that didn’t stop many of us from trying. It still hurts to think of how many hours my 10-year-old friends and I wasted trying to claim a prize that didn’t exist. Still, the experience taught us a valuable lesson about rumors and how easily they can spread.

The (Mis)Information Age

While many of us can look back on these moments and laugh, today’s students are dealing with the same problems, only on a much bigger scale. The internet and social media have completely changed the way we communicate. Each day students are bombarded with information from all sorts of unreliable sources. Reddit, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, many of these platforms have been designed to hit young minds with a quick burst of information. While this can be a great recipe for funny cat videos, it’s also proven to be an effective tool for misinformation and propaganda.

As educators, we have always done our best to foster classrooms of discerning readers and critical thinkers. Now, with the landscape of education tilting heavily toward virtual learning, helping students spot misinformation has become a major priority. By teaching students the skills they need to weed out deceptive information, we’re not just protecting them from dangerous falsehoods. We’re helping them build a foundation on which they can pursue future learning.

Spotting the Problem

Teaching discernment and media literacy is a colossal undertaking. We certainly won’t be able to cover everything in one blog. However, there are a few tips and tricks that can help your students get started:

  • Read Everything First: We’ve seen shocking headlines, but what does the article actually say? Encourage your students to read all the information first before building a conclusion. Try this exercise from Blue Apple’s Prevent the Spread project and show students the importance of reading everything first. Those who don’t are in for a surprise!
  • A Closer Look: Just because something looks trustworthy doesn’t mean that it is. Many articles use images or graphs to create the illusion of accuracy, but a closer look can tell a different story. What are the values and metrics of these images? Remind students to focus on the information and closely scrutinize every variable.
  • Says Who: Who is providing this information and what do other sources have to say about it? Since different sources often report different details, they may not be getting the full picture. Check to see if other people have reached the same conclusion, and if not, why? Also, be sure to recognize that some sources might be biased. For example, the president of the Baboon Fan Club might be biased when writing about baboons.
  • Prevent the Spread: Misinformation is like a virus; It can spread from person to person and infect hundreds before we know what’s happening! Just as humans use handwashing and masks to prevent the spread of disease, we need to take precautions to prevent the spread of misinformation. Students can help protect themselves and others by confirming the facts before sharing what they’ve learned with others. The more people practice media literacy, the fewer opportunities rumors have to spread!
It Starts with You!

Social media and the internet aren’t going anywhere, and unfortunately, neither is misinformation. However, this doesn’t mean our students can’t learn to protect themselves and push back against the tide of online gossip. The key to solving this problem is the oldest technique in education: training students to be critical and discerning thinkers. By helping students spot misinformation, they’ll be fully equipped for any challenge that comes their way.

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*Image courtesy of Today Testing via Wikimedia commons.