Teach pupils to spot fake news, says Daniel Willingham

Leading US academic warns that 21st-century skills won't stop students from being sucked in by false information

Catherine Lough

Fake news: We need to teach students to identify false information online, says Professor Daniel Willingham

Young people must be taught how to identify false information online, according to American neuroscientist and psychologist Daniel Willingham.

Professor Willingham was speaking for the first session of ResearchED Home, a series of lectures on educational research broadcast online throughout the summer term. He said that exploring how pupils could use critical thinking to evaluate internet sources seemed an "appropriate topic for the amount of schooling at home happening now".

The academic at the University of Virginia argued that pupils are unable to use "21st-century skills" or innate knowledge as "digital natives" to identify fake news, and must be taught how to navigate a range of true and false information online. 


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"There’s an argument to be made that maybe kids today, having grown up as digital natives, this [spotting fake news] is not such a big problem for them; they’re used to encountering a sort of Wild West on the internet; they never know what they are going to find; and so they’re much more sceptical than I was as a child," he said, adding that this was "not really accurate".

"‘When kids are asked to learn a new platform or how to use a new app they’re actually no faster than adults are – if they seem more adept that’s just because they have more access to resources about how to learn new technology."

Professor Willingham cited a study published at Stanford University last year by education professor Sam Wineburg, which showed that out of over 3,000 high school students, 96 per cent were unable to identify that a website they were using was a climate change denial site.

In a further example, where students were shown a doctored video of voter fraud using footage filmed in Russia, but with references to Russia replaced so that it seemed to refer to activity by the Democratic Party in the United States, 52 per cent of students said the video was strong evidence of voter fraud.

How students can identify fake news

Professor Willingham said there was an argument that if students were effective critical thinkers and possessed 21st-century skills, they could apply these to identify fake news. However, he compared this to the views of 19th-century educators who believed that learning Latin would improve students' logical abilities, later disproved by educational psychologists in the early 20th century.

"Critical thinking isn’t a standalone skill," he said. "It’s much more accurate to think of critical thinking as intertwined with knowledge."

Professor Willingham said students needed to be aware of "peripheral cues" from websites that could mislead them, such as how attractive or professional a website appeared to be, or how high up it appeared under the Google search engine.

"People rarely get off the first page of hits on Google…instead of evaluating information, what people are doing is sort of leaving that to Google and saying, 'Whatever Google returns as a prominent hit, I figure is probably a valid site,'" he said.

Critical thinking and knowledge

One thing teachers can do is to instruct students to read "laterally". A further study by Professor Wineburg at Stanford found that professional fact-checkers, if asked to verify a website, would leave the site and look for information elsewhere, whereas students "tend to go deeper into the website and look at more and more details in the website".

In one of Professor Wineburg's studies, students were shown a site purportedly about the impact of imposing a minimum wage on businesses and the economy. When asked to evaluate the site, students looked at the "About Us" section of the page, which described the organisation as a non-profit research group.

However, a Google search for the group reveals a Wikipedia article stating that it is a front created by a public affairs firm lobbying for the hospitality, tobacco and alcohol industries. 

"This lateral reading gives you a very different view of what this website is all about," said Professor Willingham. Students need to read a range of sources rather than remaining on one page, he added.

Teach 'click restraint'

Professor Wineburg's findings show that it is not always helpful to click the first thing you see. People tend to click only on higher results on Google because they are more popular with others. Professor Willingham explained that this was an example of the peripheral cue of "social proof", whereby we are more likely to believe a widely held opinion. 

Students should be taught that the first page of hits to appear may not necessarily be reliable.

Use Wikipedia wisely

Students can use Wikipedia to verify information, and Professor Willingham said attitudes towards the site had changed, with more teachers seeing Wikipedia as a valid source.

Citing Professor Wineburg, Professor Willingham said students can use Wikipedia as part of online research, but that they should pay attention to references in articles, which link to a wider range of information, and also click on the "Talk Tab" where you can see online discussion about the article's veracity. 

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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