Media literacy

OP-ED | Our children need media literacy like fish need water


While browsing the Daily News recently, I saw a link to a Washington Post column whose title intrigued me: “Online lies plague us, but should we depend on schools to cure this evil?”

As a strong advocate for media literacy in schools, I knew how to answer this question.

The editorial, unfortunately, had a different conclusion. After praising Stanford University researchers for studying misinformation that deceived 3,000 high school students, author Jay Mathews questioned the value of schools teaching children how to identify such deceptions.

“Why should we add lessons on online trickery when we still don’t give students enough time to master reading, writing, math, science and history?” he wrote. “Good-hearted attempts to encourage intelligence in web browsing are laudable but risk being ineffective. It’s like telling people they shouldn’t eat too much ice cream. This won’t work for most students and will take up time on more foundational subjects in the classroom.

I was in disbelief. Does this guy serious?

Admittedly, in addition to the basics, Mathews made some good points about the importance of teaching topics like Civil War and Microorganisms. But he felt that media literacy would only take time away from such topics. He even questioned the importance of children learning about issues like the war in Ukraine and the anti-vaccine movement.

The world in which our children are growing up is essentially digital. Ignore this fact while we teach children any topic is like keeping tropical fish in an aquarium without water. And now that the war in Ukraine is raging – a subject, by the way, that children absolutely must understand, even if at a fundamental level – we must teach children about information literacy, in all haste. The misinformation surrounding this tragic global event demands it.

“Deepfake” videos of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy abound on social media, for example. The same goes for “recontextualized media”“, like a video of Russian paratroopers supposed to land in Ukraine that’s actually a repurposed Instagram post from 2015.

A media-savvy person will stop and use digital tools to research such content before impulsively sharing it, says Joan Donavan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics and Public Policy. Google, for its part, offers news consumers a reverse image search with a quick right-click of the mouse. “TinEye” is a similar tool that is readily available. But people – especially children – won’t know about these tools if they never know about them.

Mary Kate Lonergan, an 8th grade social studies teacher in Manlius, New York, understands that kids are easy prey, especially now that TikTok has become a favorite platform for disinformation agents.

“I really think we need to catch up where technology moved too quickly, and we weren’t teaching information literacy as part of our standard curriculum,” Lonergan says in a News Literacy Project article. “They don’t have the concepts to identify what’s going on.”

With guidance from Lonergan, students learn how algorithms shape the content that different students see on social media, and they create their own content so they can understand how “intentional choices are made – content has a purpose” .

Two years ago, the Connecticut Department of Education adopted “Guidelines and Recommended Actions on Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety, and Media Literacy” to help schools develop similar lessons here. Since media literacy is not required, however, there is no guarantee that the standards will be used. Typically, the school media librarian/specialist teaches media literacy. But given the shortage of librarians in Connecticut’s 33 worst-performing Alliance districts, media education in schools is all the more uneven.

Even so, media education should not be the sole responsibility of a librarian/media specialist. Nor can every school afford the luxury of offering a dedicated course in media literacy – something I’ve been fortunate enough to experience since starting the class in the mid-1990s. Media literacy is particularly effective when integrated into existing content areas. English and social studies classes, for example, are natural settings for teaching the logical fallacies that prevent effective reading and writing. And when science teachers explain the scientific method, they’re describing the same research-based inquiry process that professional fact-checkers employ.

If on, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews may believe that education is best left to the media during “non-school hours”. As a teacher who has been in the classroom for 31 years, I say schools that ignore 21st century media literacy do students and families — not to mention our representative democracy — a terrible disservice.

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