In this guest post, Sarah Pavey, joint School Representative of the CILIP Information Literacy Group, blogs about a new government initiative to teach school children about fake news and confirmation bias, and questions whether this is the right approach, where it fits in the curriculum, and who should teach it.
Education Secretary Damien Hinds last week announced that “Teachers will have to help children learn to evaluate what they see online, how to recognise techniques used for persuasion, how to identify potential risks and how and when to seek support.” (Cockburn, 2019) as part of a “new” initiative in response to the Government’s White Paper on Online Harms (DCMS, 2019). Yet when Stephane Goldstein and I had a consultation with the Department for Education last April on behalf of the Information Literacy Group we were told explicitly it was not possible to change the Curriculum in terms of information literacy until there was a change of Government.
But just how “new” is this initiative? The Computing curriculum already covers inappropriate content on the internet and the Citizenship curriculum covers the rights and responsibilities of citizens (Gov.uk, 2019) As an information expert, one would have thought both these topics should include fake news, disinformation and misinformation without it having to be made explicit.
While the idea of teaching these skills is welcome, three fundamental questions, in my opinion, need to be raised;
– Is this the right approach?
-Who should be teaching it ?
-Where and how will it fit into the Curriculum?
Is this the right approach?
This would appear to be a knee jerk emotional response to the plethora of fake news conversations in the media at present. This directive is, in itself, promoting populism rather than examining the factual evidence. If the inclusion in the Curriculum is just helping students to spot online misbehavior with information, then the perpetrators will just become more clever at disguising it. Damien Hinds seems to be confusing the terms digital and media literacy with online safety – a common mistake and a dangerous one. Surely we should be teaching students about the need to tackle the root cause, the long term consequences for our society of the perpetuation of fake news, misinformation and disinformation beyond the bounds of personal safety. Not that long ago reporting on climate change by the media revolved around sound bites and images showing piles of plastic and melting glaciers but now we have moved on to talk about ways to prevent this happening. In academic circles we have moved from spotting examples of plagiarism to showing students the fundamentals of academic writing. We need to move on from just spotting fake news.
Who should be teaching it ?
The Government have suggested teachers will be able to put this new Curriculum venture into practice but why should they have any more knowledge than the students they teach? There is a dichotomy because even the Government are not adhering to their own advice as they too perpetuate fake news, disinformation and misinformation on their own website. An example is the Leveson Inquiry Report containing a well known error concerning the founders of the Independent newspaper (DCMS, 2012) and yet the Government refuse to amend the incorrect information despite it being in PDF format stating reasons of expense.
As librarians, I think we have to question their understanding of the terminology of fake news when they seem blasé about their own digital footprint. How, with this misunderstanding, can they direct teachers in what and how to teach this subject? Why did they not consult information experts and the new Information Literacy definition (ILG, 2018) from the ILG before planning this initiative? They know we exist as an invited representative from DfE attended part of the LILAC conference this year.
Where will it fit into the curriculum?
At the moment this subject appears to target KS3 and KS4 ie 11-16 year olds, but this is problematic. Citizenship and Computing are minority subjects where students requiring additional support, music and/or drama lessons may opt out. They are not subjects that form part of an Ofsted inspection. The directive seems to be from the viewpoint of online safety not long term digital footprint. Further dichotomy occurs in use of language such as “evaluate” which is used differently throughout the National Curriculum and exam syllabi to mean look at your own findings and see if you can improve them. This could mean students think they have to just form their own opinions about the fake news they encounter with no research about authenticity – just merely learning to develop a sixth sense in order to keep safe. No marks are awarded in GCSE and A-level examinations for correct authentic referencing styles and this offers little incentive to put what they have learnt in Citizenship and Computing into practice.
Maybe a better approach to tackle these issues would be to refocus on enquiry based learning as found in Scandanavian Schools (Spiller, 2017), International Baccalaureate Schools (IBO, 2019) and through initiatives such as FOSIL (Toerien, 2019). Such approaches have a marked difference – there is a defined role for the librarian, the information expert to be found in most of these schools. Sadly, in England and Wales especially, the role of school librarian has been eroded in recent years since the demise of independent learning through coursework in schools. Many school librarians now have been repositioned as adjuncts to the English Department helping rather than in their natural cross-curricular role of information guru. Yet all qualified school librarians will have had university level education in information handling and in an age where many schools are now employing unqualified teachers (ironically often delivering Citizenship and Computing) would it not be more sensible to use someone with expertise in this area? Taking notice of the Information Literacy definition and the impact Fake News, Disinformation, Misinformation has on wider society would be a start as would learning the skills not to promote this modern moral panic but instead to tackle it just as we are learning to do with climate change and academic honesty.
Cockburn, H. (2019)Schools to teach children about fake news and ‘confirmation bias’, government announces. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/fake-news-schools-education-online-risks-confirmation-bias-damian-hinds-government-a9004516.html?amp
DCMS (2012) Leveson Inquiry – Report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/leveson-inquiry-report-into-the-culture-practices-and-ethics-of-the-press
DCMS (2019) Online harms white paper. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/online-harms-white-paper/online-harms-white-paper
Gov.uk (2019) The National Curriculum. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum
IBO (2019) The IB learner profile Available at: https://www.ibo.org/benefits/learner-profile/
Information Literacy Group (CILIP) (2018) Definition of Information Literacy 2018 . Available at: https://infolit.org.uk/ILdefinitionCILIP2018.pdf
Spiller, P. (2017) Could subjects soon be a thing of the past in Finland?. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39889523
Toerien, D. (2019) The FOSIL group. Available at: https://fosil.org.uk/