Teaching Social Studies in the Era of “Alternative Facts”

Teaching Social Studies in the Era of “Alternative Facts”

In his article, “Fake News, Alternative Facts, and Trump: Teaching Social Studies in a Post-Truth Era,” Wayne Journell paints a clear picture of how the current government leadership and the American media have together birthed the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” It is in this era that American citizens can willingly “disregard verifiable facts as fake simply because they contradict their agenda” or their own worldview (8). It is in this era that American citizens can turn to media outlets of their choice to hear news and ideas that only reinforce their own viewpoints. It is in this era that Social Studies teachers are needed more than ever.

As American students hear government leaders give false statements and misleading information, and as they are bombarded by sound bites and images from media echo chambers, the job of the Social Studies teacher becomes increasingly difficult. For as Journell argues, Social Studies teachers are “tasked with ensuring that students are trained to ‘think critically’ and ‘make reasoned decisions’” about the social and political states of the world (10). A central question for Social Studies teachers today is: How do we teach our students to avoid first drawing conclusions and then finding evidence to match those conclusions, and instead consider credible sources of information and evidence to then make reasonable, informed decisions?

Journell remarks that “both political thinking and media literacy are skills that need to be taught and practiced over time” (10). While teacher training and education research will continue to address these topics, Journell offers some guidance for Social Studies teachers in the meantime.

The Take-Away

1. Journell recommends that teachers do discuss politics in class. Even though teachers may feel reluctant to discuss political matters in class due to polarization and possibly uncomfortable situations, it is important for students to have substantive conversations in not only Civics and Government classes, but also in History, Economics, and even Geography classes as well (12). Journell advises that these political conversation not simply focus on how messages are delivered, but rather on the substance of what is said.

“[B]eing willing to step back from one’s emotions and personal beliefs and evaluate claims based on available evidence is an unnatural act that only improves with practice” (12).

2. Teach students to back up their claims with evidence. Journell recommends that “when students attempt to support their positions using dubious claims that they may have seen online, teachers should encourage them to support such claims with evidence” (12). Moreover, Social Studies teachers can model for students how to evaluate claims by searching for and finding credible sources of evidence. Still, Social Studies teachers can make claim verification a “form of active inquiry” for students in class. Here students can themselves engage in efforts to validate political claims. Journell remarks that through this form of inquiry, students’ questions evolve from being focused on the truth of a statement to the validity of the referenced policy itself (12).

3. Perhaps one of the most daunting tasks Social Studies teachers face in the area of media literacy is how to teach students about the credibility of news sources. This is especially difficult given that previous studies have shown that high school students tend to prioritize and value personal experiences more than empirical data and they tend to seek out information that validates their own worldview (14-15): “…alignment with one’s worldview was more influential than determining whether information was factually accurate” (15).

Journell recommends that Social Studies teachers discuss with students the political leanings and overall quality of news sources. What sources are hyper-partisan? What sources are poor quality? And, even more importantly, what are the characteristics that make news sources hyper-partisan and/or poor quality (18)?

Going forward, media literacy will be an important part of Social Studies curriculum. Training students to identify and cite credible evidence for claims, to engage in political discourse, and to make reasoned decisions is vital for students’ development as members of a democratic society.

“Now, more than ever, including opportunities to discuss politics and evaluate political information throughout the social studies curriculum is necessary to prepare students for civic life” (18).

Paper Title:  Fake News, Alternative Facts, and Trump: Teaching Social Studies in a Post-Truth Era

Authors: Wayne Journell (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)

Full Paper: https://pcssonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2017-Spring-PCSS-Journal.pdf

Published: Social Studies Journal, Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies, Spring 2017, Pages 8-21

Photo: Thanks to Victor Lozano on Unsplash

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