Media literacy

How to teach students historical inquiry through media literacy and critical thinking


“I think history lessons are exactly the sort of thing we should be talking about in history class,” Wineburg said. “But rather than teaching them as rules or things set in time or set in amber, these are precisely the kinds of things that are worth debating.”

Today, most people are looking for information that they are unfamiliar with on the Internet, including students. So it’s even more important that students have tools they can use to make informed decisions about what they trust online.


Will Colglazier, a US history teacher in the San Mateo Union High School District, takes this call to action at Aragon High School to heart. Like so many teachers, he feels compelled to cover all of its content and stick to the pace guides, but he also believes that students need fundamental digital literacy skills to continue learning history in the future.

“Less is more and you have to cut the content in order to make room for bringing in the skills that you feel are essential,” Colglazier said. “This is not the only time they have been able to access the information. It’s not like their ability to learn US history ends in May.

Colglazier balances the pressure of program coverage with cross-curricular skills by thinking carefully about the objectives of his course. He sets them up at the start of the year so that if he ends up cutting a unit to devote himself to something else, he can be sure he’s still hitting those goals. Especially in his advanced placement classes, he feels a pressure to go through all the material, to make sure his students get high scores and do well. But at one point, he decided that was enough.

“I continued to be frustrated teaching the course and aligning my unit tests with what the AP test is,” Colglazier said. This led to boring assessments and a boring class. Instead, he decided to incorporate more historical inquiries into his lessons, with plenty of practice on AP style test questions as well.

He started asking more controversial open-ended questions and asked students to find information to back up their claims on these topics. He wanted students to ask questions and engage in the activities of real historians, so he urged students to use their critical thinking skills, put issues in context, and give them the opportunity to read. up close perspectives and silences. He thought these historic skills would be transferred to the digital space, but he was wrong.

“The assumption that this would only transfer for all is not true,” Colglazier said. “It must be explicitly taught.”

His students did not do well on the Stanford test for determining advertisements versus reporting. But they were already doing a lot of research online in class, so Colglazier decided to spend some time explicitly teaching students how to check websites, read laterally, and go beyond elegant web design.

“They don’t like to be duped,” Colglazier said of his students. “It’s an intrinsic desire of anyone. You don’t want to sound like an idiot. They want support and they are quite willing to take it. Some of them are not rocket science, they just need to be taught explicitly.

Colglazier now regularly replaces multiple-choice or short-answer questions with activities that force students to mimic the experience of online research. It’ll ask a general question and send them to an article that maybe isn’t from a reliable site. Students should determine if they can trust the information and, if not, find more reliable sources to back up their claims.

Colglazier doesn’t think these types of activities stray too far from their agenda. Whereas before he could have distributed several documents he found and asked students to work at their desks to use the documents to save a claim, now he sends them online. And it doesn’t manage the resources for them. He expects students to have a better reason to trust a source than “the teacher gave it to me.”

“One thing I found is that it’s messy,” Colglazier said. “And it’s certainly less effective than if I just told them the information. But it’s about developing the skills and cutting the content to provide that space where clutter occurs.

Colglazier also tries to be clearer with the students on how these skills apply to both history and life. Often times, students become nihilistic at first, thinking that every time they visit a website they will have to research a rabbit hole. Perhaps this is the price to pay for living in a world with so much information at your fingertips; they should ask questions about their sources. The textbook itself is ripe for questioning in Colglazier’s classroom. The textbook can be a useful lesson skeleton, he says, but he wants students to question its silences and framing as well.

“When students read the textbook, they look for it for facts without thinking about it meta,” he said. “And we want to teach them how to do it with all their information. You are preventing them from learning to some extent ”if you don’t.


Sam Wineburg at Stanford doesn’t blame teachers for not immediately knowing how to teach these crucial digital media skills, but he hopes studies like his will bring about change. In the short term, he wants everyone – adults and children alike – to learn to use the Internet like fact-checkers do. On top of that, he would like to see the teaching of the humanities move from covering each unit in a huge textbook to a critical inquiry into history. Beyond all of that, he thinks we need a radical change in the way we consume information.

In one Twitter feed grasping these ideas Wineburg writes: “Of course in our civic education classes we need new approaches. But if we think that this question only concerns civic education, we are deluding ourselves. It’s about how we teach EVERY subject.

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