A checklist for teaching students to spot fake news

In today’s age of misinformation, it has arguably never been more important to teach children to challenge what they read. Assistant head Angus Weir explains how his school created a checklist to enable all teachers to nurture critical-thinking skills in PSHE sessions
31st July 2020, 12:01am
People Dressed Up As Elvis At An Audition - Fake News Pshe
Angus Weir


A checklist for teaching students to spot fake news


In the middle of inner-city Birmingham, there is a sticker stuck to a lamppost. The flash of colour against the metal pole catches a teenager's eye as he walks past on his way to school. He stops to squint up at it.

The sticker has been stuck there by an anti-democracy extremist group. The boy struggles to make sense of the writing on it. He can understand the words, but not the message behind them.

Eventually, he shrugs and carries on walking, leaving the sticker where it is.

Young people encounter propaganda such as this every day - online and in the towns where they live.

Like every other urban comprehensive serving a disadvantaged community, we want to make sure that our students have the ability to make sense of the messages they are exposed to, but also the confidence of character to challenge them.

This is why, when planning for the new English language GCSE, we decided to overlap with our PSHE curriculum. We were inspired here by Alison Morgan, a senior teaching fellow at the University of Warwick, with whom we had previously worked on challenging more able students in English.

As well as teaching students to analyse unfamiliar non-fiction texts in exam settings, we wanted to make sure that every student had the opportunity to explore big issues in the world around them. One solution to this was to introduce regular, deliberate practice of reading non-fiction texts in tutor-time PSHE sessions.

To make this work, we knew we needed to have a framework in place that would allow even our least confident staff to support our least literate students. We decided that reading and discussion needed to be guided by an evidence-informed checklist.

In a 2005 paper, David Hyatt sets out just such a checklist. His framework consists of 11 points relating to the "'micro' lexico-grammatical" elements of a text, as well as linguistic choices made at the "'macro' semantic and societal levels".

This framework is thorough, but we quickly realised it wasn't suitable for our context - it would require a great deal of specialist knowledge to use effectively and, overall, was far too complex for staff to buy into, or for students to remember in their exam.

Next, we turned to a 2004 paper by Maureen McLaughlin and Glenn DeVoogd, which considers the traditionally passive nature of reading in schools: the fact that students are taught to accept what they read, without questioning it.

Alongside this, we looked at Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto, which explores the effective use of checklists in daily life.

From our reading, we came up with a list of questions to address. These included:

  • How can we make sure that a non-specialist, or a colleague new to the profession, can pick up this framework and use it quickly?
  • What are the "killer items" that we don't want users of the framework to skip?
  • How can this work support us as pastoral practitioners in realising our duty of safeguarding to students - and enable students to understand a text's purpose so that they are not manipulated by it?
  • How could we build on students' prior knowledge when reading texts through this framework?

Once we had outlined these questions, we set out to try to answer them as we built our framework. To do this, we needed a collaborative approach.

Schools in south Birmingham have an annual network training day in which we work together on delivering CPD. We hosted a session in which we shared our research findings, and then finalised our checklist through discussion.

We settled on six broad headings for the checklist:

  • What? Where? When?
  • Power.
  • Metaphor. Imagery. Words.
  • Sets and connections.
  • Tone. Intention. Emotion.
  • Manipulation.

Now that we had our checklist, we could introduce it to our students. We did this in several different ways.

First, we held a "big teach" session in the hall for all our high-prior-attaining Year 11 students in which we led them through group discussion of the texts that would be used for PSHE across the whole school. These students were then expected to use their understanding to model the standard of discussion in their vertical tutor groups.

At the same time, we began using the checklist in regular small-group guided reading interventions with students identified as "less confident" in exploring non-fiction.

We then dedicated one week of PSHE form time sessions each month to exploring a PSHE theme through the lens of critical theory. We recognised that non-specialist staff would need support here, so our most experienced English teachers and lead practitioners provided detailed feedback during these sessions.

So, how did the roll-out of these approaches go? Unsurprisingly, there were some challenges. For instance, many of our colleagues found the general nature of the questions on the checklist too vague. In addition, they considered our requirement to produce a piece of written work at the end of discussions to be too demanding.

There were also concerns that some students were still too passive in discussion; some colleagues questioned whether less able students could really be critical. Meanwhile, our lead practitioners felt that more staff training was needed.

To overcome these challenges, we planned the lessons in greater detail. We made sure that PSHE sessions began with a very accessible introductory text (usually a video) to tackle any gaps in understanding. We then created a series of text-specific questions - for example, instead of simply asking, "How are things described?", we might ask: "In line 17, what does 'hallowed as genuine sources' mean?" - and ensured that there were multiple opportunities for students to deliberately practise responding to these questions, both in the classroom and independently.

On the staff training side, we provided pre-delivery mini-CPD sessions that teachers could opt into. These sessions were based around the reading that students would be expected to undertake.

We also developed an ethos of high expectations in reading by sharing papers that support the development of literacy through the delivery of challenging texts, such as Why Children Should Be Taught to Read With More Challenging Texts (Shanahan, 2019).

Finally, we allowed tutors to provide evidence of discussions taking place in a format of their choosing. Pastoral staff then made comparative judgements on the quality of these and provided feedback to their teams in development sessions.

Are the approaches working? Although we have only been using these methods for a year, we are already seeing a positive impact. Using the checklist has allowed us to broaden discussions around non-fiction texts, encouraging students to move beyond simplistic generalisations about context. They now have a demonstrably greater sense of texts being consciously crafted, and this was perhaps a factor in the improvement we saw in our English language paper 2 results.

But, perhaps more importantly, the new sessions have provided increased opportunities for structured discussions that can engage all students in form time, and have allowed our PSHE curriculum to become more responsive to current affairs. This means that we are helping students to be more critical readers, not only in the exam hall but also of the messages they encounter in the world around them.

And that will have benefits reaching far beyond the school walls.

Angus Weir is assistant headteacher at Moseley School and Sixth Form in Birmingham

This article originally appeared in the 31 July 2020 issue under the headline "Teaching students to spot fake news? Tick it off your list"

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