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Media Literacy

Quality Media Literacy Requires More Than Toothless Laws, Educators Say 

New laws from California to New Jersey are shining a spotlight on media literacy, but educators say teaching the skills in classrooms requires a targeted, intentional approach.

February 29, 2024

Michael Spikes has spent nearly two decades teaching and writing about the need for media literacy instruction in K–12 schools, as well as developing curricula for teachers. But according to the Northwestern University lecturer, things are headed in the wrong direction: Despite all the efforts thus far, the need to teach kids how to discern good information from bad has never been greater.

There are no simple solutions. Major changes in the media landscape have dramatically altered the news and publishing industries, upending the reading and watching behavior of younger Americans, in particular. Today, more than half of teens get their news from social media platforms, and a third of kids ages 10–17 trust online influencers more than they do newspapers, according to Common Sense Media and the U.K.’s Office of Communications, respectively. It doesn’t help, Spikes said, that social media platforms do little to distinguish between credible news outlets with dozens of fact-checkers and independent content creators shooting videos in their basements. “We have all these different players, with different intents and purposes, and they’re all playing in the same space,” Spikes said.   

To keep pace in a rapidly evolving knowledge ecosystem, Spikes and over a dozen educators around the country say that the need for media literacy has reached a tipping point. “It is now on the consumer of media to make important distinctions between different types of content on their own,” Spikes said, reflecting on the deluge of TikTok videos, memes, and Reddit threads that compete with traditional news outlets for the mindshare of young adults. “That requires a certain set of skills and dispositions that haven’t traditionally been taught.” 

A handful of states agree. Last year, California became the latest, signing a bill on behalf of its roughly 6 million school-aged children in public schools requiring that new media standards be embedded into English language arts, science, math, and history classrooms across all grade levels. On the East Coast, New Jersey and Delaware have passed similar bills, and in 2021 Illinois took a different tack, mandating a stand-alone media literacy class in all public high schools.

But according to educators in these states—as well as outside reporting corroborating their accounts—classroom implementation has been slow to materialize, due to a lack of guidance, funding, and oversight. 

Evelyn Mamman, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the South Brunswick School District in New Jersey, said her state’s bill “made noise” but has done little else because the Department of Education hasn’t provided schools with direction on what it means, an explanation of how to implement it, or the funds to train teachers. “We’ve not received anything.”

While the standards hang in limbo, teachers, principals, and district leaders in these states say they’ve taken up the mantle on their own—and in many cases have done so well before a bill was even passed. 

“We didn’t need a bill to tell us that this is important,” Mamman insisted.   

Leaning on Librarians

Lisa Manganello has been a librarian at South Brunswick High School—the only high school in her district—for the last 17 years. Five years ago, due to concerns about plagiarism, Manganello began collaborating with teachers to weave media ethics into freshman classrooms but quickly realized that deeper issues needed to be addressed. “We noticed our students have access to so much information, but they hadn’t actually been taught how to identify a good resource,” Manganello said. 

Today, all fifth graders, middle school students, and high school freshmen in the district receive media literacy instruction across disciplines. “I don’t care if you’re teaching biology, chemistry, English, or art; everything we do is about information and discernment,” Manganello said. “Nothing is more important than teaching our kids how to do that. How to think critically. How to gather information, organize it, evaluate it, and then use it responsibly.”

By leaning on librarians like Manganello, and having them collaborate with classroom teachers on periodic, content-specific media literacy lessons, Mamman said, the district has been able to provide students with targeted skills practice such as distinguishing news articles from opinion articles and scanning scientific studies for information that may be misconstrued in a secondhand account.

She recommended that other districts that are “waiting on the how” from state legislators instead build off of existing media literacy standards. “Understanding the difference between fact and opinion, for example, has been part of all of our English standards for a long time now,” Mamman said. “It’s not new.”  

The most important thing to do, Mamman added, is to make the decision as a district that media literacy is “necessary, inevitable, and interdisciplinary.” Once that message is conveyed to all relevant stakeholders, she said, implementation and buy-in become a lot simpler. 

Try, Fail, Try Again

Across the country, at Aragon High School in San Mateo, California, history teacher William Colglazier has been embedding media literacy skills into his classrooms since 2018—years before California’s recent law change—but he said he’s largely been operating on his own. 

A bedrock resource for Colglazier has been the Digital Inquiry Group (DIG), a nonprofit founded in 2002 by Stanford researcher and professor Sam Wineburg, whose research over the last three decades has focused on how students judge—or fail to judge—the credibility of online information.

In a 2016 study, Wineburg and other DIG researchers gave a series of 56 tasks to middle school to college-aged students across 12 states that ranged from evaluating the trustworthiness of a source to distinguishing between a news article and an opinion column. The students’ ability to parse online information, Wineburg and his team concluded at the time, “can be summed up in one word: bleak.” 

In his high school history classroom, Colglazier, who studied under Wineburg nearly 20 years ago, took an inquiry-based approach to the subject and focused on “articulated, critical thinking skills,” such as sourcing information for reliability, corroborating it, and contextualizing it. These important skills, he hypothesized, would prepare students for life when they went to search for a job, choose a political candidate, or join a health care plan.   

Unfortunately, Colglazier’s best efforts fell short. When Wineburg was called in to assess his students’ media fluency, requiring them to analyze the validity of a “click-baity” tweet about the unfairness of CEO pay, for example, Colglazier assumed that his students would “crush it.” But they floundered, taking the information at face value because it appeared to come from authoritative sources. To make kids truly critical readers and thinkers, Colglazier realized, he needed to make media literacy skills instruction much more explicit—and provide his students with hands-on, repeated practice.

To take that next step, Colglazier has borrowed heavily from content developed by Civic Online Reasoning, a free collection of lessons and curriculum developed by DIG to help teachers embed media literacy skills into their instruction. To date, materials on the site have been downloaded 15 million times, according to the DIG webpage.

The lessons and curriculum, Colglazier said, focus on helping students develop two big skills: “Lateral reading,” a strategy often used by professional fact-checkers that involves reading superficially across multiple sites to validate a disputed claim, before reading deeply for more context—and “click restraint,” which teaches students not to click on the first result in a search and assume that it’s trustworthy. 

Wineburg’s research revealed that drilling down on at least one of these skills in the classroom—even in small doses—can be effective. In a 2022 study, his team concluded that high school students who received targeted instruction in lateral reading were twice as likely to improve their ability to quickly evaluate online information and spot unreliable information, compared with peers who hadn’t received the instruction. 

The Research Is in

What Fact-Checkers Know About Media Literacy—and Students Should, Too

Professional fact-checkers use a strategy that’s at odds with how we usually teach information literacy. Here’s how to pass it on to your students.

Because Colglazier often teaches media literacy without broad, district-level support, he focuses on identifying opportunities to build on already-planned lessons.

He recently gave students an assignment related to the sinking of the USS Maine during the Spanish-American War and provided students with sources from Filipino and Cuban textbooks that claim American spies purposefully blew up the ship. It’s a controversial claim that Colglazier said many students are often ready to believe, sort of like the incendiary claims they tend to encounter on social media. 

Instead of showing them that the evidence doesn’t bear out, Colglazier asked students to use lateral reading to find credible evidence that supports the claims. But they couldn’t. “I teach them that this doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen, but that it is very telling that there’s no revelation in scholarship or in a New York Times story about this,” Colglazier said. “And so they begin to kind of piece together that, well, this claim isn’t verified, and the sinking was probably an accident.”  

Although Colglazier said there have been “crickets” since California’s media literacy bill passed last year, he’s hopeful that it will motivate more districts and schools to change their approach and give teachers the training and confidence they need to make the necessary shifts.

Fact-Checking TikTok

At Neuqua Valley High School in Illinois, a few key teachers across disciplines that freshmen see each year—like biology teacher Adrienne Toomey—are tasked with embedding media literacy skills practice into instruction using lessons and concepts developed by DIG. In one lesson related to genetic modification, Toomey has students practice lateral reading by asking them to research both the claims of a TikTok video related to the subject, and the user who made the video. “They have to think: Who is this person, really? And is what they’re saying something I should believe based on the information I find?”  

Activities like these are a hit with students because they’re inherently interested in TikTok, an app many use regularly, but also because “they really like finding out that people are wrong, or that they really aren’t as important as they say they are,” Toomey said. She also finds that she gets more engagement from students when she reframes media literacy skills as “life skills” they’ll use forever. “I explain to them that even when you’re shopping for shoes, you could use click restraint.”  

Embedding media literacy into her classroom did require a shift, Toomey said, and it does mean spending less time on some content she might have covered in previous years. But the trade-off feels justified: “Students can always go online and learn more about cellular respiration,” Toomey said, but learning how to distinguish between good and bad information is the sort of skill that allows them to become better judges of scientific information as they encounter it in the real world, too. “It helps with consuming information for a paper, but it also helps with deciding whether or not to buy a product, or even whether or not you should take a certain medication.” 

Toomey said she has the confidence to make this choice because she knows the leadership team at her school is on the same page and that they have specifically communicated to teachers that focusing on media literacy is a priority. “There’s never been one moment teaching here where I thought, well, if I don’t teach the two parts of the mitochondria, I’m not doing my job,” she said.

Actionable Steps 

As part of his research, Spikes said, he’s tried to understand what good media literacy policy and instruction look like and how it’s best implemented. Often, one of the biggest policy stumbling blocks is that teachers aren’t provided with clear, specific definitions of the “skills, practices, and dispositions” that good media literacy instruction requires and how to implement those skills in a classroom. 

After media literacy legislation was passed in Illinois, Spikes and a colleague founded the Illinois Media Literacy Coalition (IMLC) to support teachers as they wrestled with implementation of the law. “While the bill gave us a specific definition of what media literacy was, it did not specify when, where, or how it was supposed to be taught in schools,” Spikes said.

Spikes said the IMLC draws from research on how successful educational policy makes its way into the classroom. “What that research shows is that for a lot of teachers, the first thing they do is assimilate a new policy into their existing practices,” he said. “And if the new policy is too different from their existing practices, then what they largely do is make surface-level changes to be in compliance. But they don’t really implement the new policy and make it a core part of their practice.”

While making media literacy a focus of a school’s or district’s pedagogy will undoubtedly require coordination and broad support, Spikes said, teachers can make smaller shifts to help students think more deeply about the content they’re being exposed to in classrooms and online. A simple but effective practice is to slow down and determine who created the information instead of rushing to judgment. 

“One of the biggest things we can teach students is not to automatically make the jump from seeing content to reacting to it,” Spikes said. “The current media ecosystem just encourages us to keep reacting to stuff. And we have to deliberately teach students to push back against that instinct.” 

Tools provided by Civic Online Reasoning are a good place to start, and Spikes recommends also looking at free resources for teachers provided by the National Association for Media Literacy Education, The Center for Media Literacy, and Media Education Lab

The frequency of trying to integrate these skills is important, too. Ideally, Spikes said, students should see these skills applied in different contexts, because becoming media literate is not something they can learn in a lesson or two. “You have to do it so much that it begins to become effortless to ask yourself these important questions when you encounter information and content,” he said. “Right now, for most people it’s very effortful to ask yourself: Where did this come from? How do I find out more about this?”  

Colglazier agreed, saying that the biggest change he made in his classroom was attempting to infuse media literacy practice into all of his units. 

“There is a cesspool of stuff online nowadays, and you have to wade through it to find the goodness in it,” Colglazier said. “Good information is the most expensive, important commodity. Those who can find good, reliable, and relevant information are the ones who will be influential and successful.” 

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