Reflections On… Fake News

This is one in a series of posts in which I look back on 10 years of blogging and reflect on posts from the past.

Misinformation on the web. Illustration by Carlos PX (http://payforlayers.com/) https://unsplash.com/photos/2TS23o0-pUc

Back on October 16th, one day after I was celebrating my blog’s tenth anniversary, Philip Kerr published a post on his Adaptive Learning In ELT blog about fake news. The timing was perfect because I had promised in my birthday post that I would be looking back on some of the posts I have written during the life of my blog, and at the time of writing this, my post Fake news – a lesson plan is by far and away the most popular post I have ever published. And as it happens, this was one of the posts that Philip mentioned in his piece, but before I talk about what he said, let me give a bit of context.

Philip started publishing Adaptive Learning In ELT in January 2014, which is itself a pretty impressive stint at blogging. In that time, it has become an essential read and his incisive, evidence-based analyses of the intersection between ELT and technology, particularly the companies that control that technology, has been one of the main influences on my thinking. It’s not just that it’s informative, but that it informs us in an area which has an enormous impact on our lives and profession and where many are often hopelessly ill informed.

Philip’s post on Fake news and critical thinking

As you can see, I’m a fan. So you might think I was feeling a bit conflicted when in the aforementioned post on fake news, Philip gently criticised my view by saying :

James Taylor has suggested that the English language classroom is ‘the perfect venue for [critical thinking] skills to be developed’. Although academic English courses necessarily involve elements of critical thinking, I’m not so sure that media information literacy (and, specifically, the identification of fake news) can be adequately addressed in general English classes.

You would, however, be wrong. I was delighted, because he was right. When you blog, you don’t put the same thought into it as you do with longer and more researched pieces published in journals or presented at conferences. That’s the nature of the beast. The strength of the medium is that it enables you to express how you are feeling on that day, indeed it’s quite possible that I’ll look back on this post in a couple of years and totally disagree with it. I’m good with that, and I’m also good with Philip looking at something that I wrote a few years ago and pointing out something that he disagrees with. We literally live and learn.

In this instant, the English language classroom is probably not the ‘perfect venue’ to develop these skills. The ‘perfect venue’ may be a digital or media literacy course with plenty of time to investigate the subject and practice the skills without the distraction of having to do it in a foreign language. I also wouldn’t argue with the majority of his other arguments and I have even integrated some of them into my most recent version of my talk and workshop on fake news.

A quote from Philip’s post which I’ve added to my talk on fake news

But that doesn’t mean I’m not in favour of teaching subjects like these in our lessons. If you ask the important and relevant question “what is the best way to improve student’s media or digital literacy?”, the answer is unlikely to be in the language lesson. But if you flip that question around and ask “can we teach media or digital literacy in the language classroom?” I think you get, for us, a more interesting question because then we can start to analyse how we spend our student’s time in their lessons.

Before I suggest that we can, a caveat: our priority is, and always should be, teaching English. If we lose sight of that in our rush to create better informed digital citizens, we’ve lost sight of what our jobs are. But the bottom line with contemporary English language teaching is that we are always teaching something beyond the language and using that as a vessel through which to reach our linguistic aims. Even the most seemingly benign subjects are embedded with values and represent a specific viewpoint. (To read more on the subject, look up ‘the hidden curriculum’.)

Another thing that Philip’s blog is extremely useful for are the references he lists at the end of each article, and these quotes come from a text I discovered there, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life by Rich and Kavanagh (downloadable for free as an ebook):

“Critical thinking can be woven into any subject matter or course by asking students not just to memorize or repeat information but rather to engage with information, assess it, analyze it, and apply it to different contexts and situations.” (p138)

Critical thinking, which research suggests can be taught more effectively when integrated into coursework than when assigned as a stand-alone topic, can similarly be folded into science (as noted), math, reading comprehension, and other classes. In this way, these important topics could be addressed mostly within the existing curriculum, with some small modifications. (p150)

And to add the recent thoughts of Penny Ur…

So if we accept the idea that we are always teaching something beyond the language, why not concentrate on the genuinely useful life skills that our students can apply in their own lives? Why don’t we talk about what it means to be a good friend, or how to avoid procrastination, or look at the history of activism, or whatever genuinely useful subject we can as opposed to talking about shopping or travel or work in the same old way that we have done before a thousand times over?

One of the reasons this blog has survived into its 11th year is precisely because it facilitates this kind of reflection. Like a diary, I can look back on it and think about how my position has changed over the years, but with the added benefit that it takes place in public. And that means that my reflections are not happening alone, but with the encouragement of others. For another example of this, look out for my next anniversary reflection…

This post was soundtracked by

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