Teaching Kids about Misinformation and Harmful Opinions

Feb 27, 2018 by

The digital landscape has changed the way we view and digest information. Especially when it comes to education, peer-reviewed journals and other verified materials are now available with just a click of a button. It is not something easily accessible only to universities, international schools private institutions anymore; anyone with an email or library affiliation can retrieve any information. But with this innovation comes the danger of viewing articles that are not factually sound. Currently, we still call it “fake news” or “alternative facts”, because it has majorly affected the information on world affairs. Thankfully, it has not yet seeped into journal sites, but it would be unwise not to prepare ourselves and our students in fact-checking whatever they read online. 

Here, we will talk about the spread of misinformation and how students can use their access to unlimited journals to fact check and defend what they are arguing for. 

Efforts to teach students to spot “fake news” has already started 

About 3,300 educators from across the United States have started the News Literacy Project which aims to teach kids how to distinguish made up stories to factual news. There are 12 lessons that teachers can incorporate into their classes, and online lectures and exercises that kids can view at home.  

It was surprising how prescient the founders are, because the project was started in 2008, years before the proliferation of made-up facts became a problem. They saw an increase in interest in their project right after the US elections.  

The way the class works is simple: the kids are shown clips and articles from real news sites and satirical ones like The Onion and John Oliver. The educator supervises an open class discussion where kids are asked what they think about what they had just read or seen. They are then taught critical thinking skills that will help them distinguish whether they are being fed propaganda or facts. 

Personal opinions and why some of them are wrong 

In this regard, international schools have an edge. The very nature of their learning environment — its multidiversity — teaches them that not all people have the same truths as theirs and that they have to consider this when coming up with a rational thought. 

 While there are undisputed facts that everyone accepts, we cannot help but mix in the beliefs we grew up with in how we perceive the world. However, there are personal beliefs that will/are harmful to other people. This is why it is difficult to discuss topics like religion or politics, even in a school setting, because it then becomes an attack on their nurtured ideals and opinions. 

This is not to say that there are no wrong opinions. But this is an important lesson that students need to learn: any opinion that cannot be justified with facts and are only created to harm other people is a wrong opinion.  

An article was written by Patrick Stokes, a Philosophy professor at Deakin University, titled No you’re not entitled to your opinion,” perfectly elaborates the importance of justifying opinions: 

You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.” 

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible. 

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse. 

As a last thought: While it is good that we are teaching kids logical fallacies and critical thinking at a very young age, it is unfortunate that it is because of the spread of misinformation.  


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