Category Archives: Education

Students, Fake News, and Critical Thinking

There has been a lot going on in the United States these past few months, and much has been said about the proliferation of “fake news” covering recent events, especially on social media sites such as FaceBook and Twitter. A recent study by Stanford University found that the majority of students they surveyed from middle school through college could not distinguish between a native ad sponsored content and a real news story. And the Wall Street Journal reported that “[m]any students judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source.” (WSJ, 11/2016) When shown a tweet with a photo of mutated daisies purportedly from the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, nearly 40% of the students in the Stanford study argued that the photo provided pictorial evidence of nuclear radiation at the power plant. Wow. Credibility judged on whether or not there’s a pretty picture. Only 20% of the students refuted the evidence and questioned the source of the post or the photo itself.

The study points out the need to teach information literacy along with other scholastic skills. Currently, the overall ability of young people to reason about information found on the Internet is “bleak.” (Stanford History Education Group.) In the “old days,” people could rely on editors, publishers, and other fact checkers to determine if information presented was reliable. These days, not so much. Michael Lynch, a philosopher who studies technological change, observed that the Internet is “both the world’s best fact-checker
and the world’s best bias confirmer—often at the same time. (Lynch, New York Times, 3/2016.)

Educators need to address how students gather and interpret information online on social and other digital platforms. False and biased information comes from many sources, including deceptive advertising, satirical websites, and misleading partisan posts and articles. (Schellenbarger, WSJ. 11/2016.)  Students need to be savvy about choosing and believing their Internet sources, and we need to instill in them a healthy skepticism. As the Stanford study says, the ability to sort facts from fiction is imperative for civic online reasoning.

I teach a lesson on source evaluation to English classes that uses the CRAAP test method: how to determine the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of information presented, whether found on the Internet or elsewhere. This year, I have a new commitment to instill in my students the skepticism necessary to wade through the phony, the bogus, the counterfeit, the misleading, the you-name-it fake news. I want them to step back and question things, not just consume everything mindlessly from their social media sites. I want them to develop the sleuthing skills needed to discover information that is well-researched and well-thought out. I want them to become curious, thoughtful, well-rounded members of society. I have my work cut out for me.

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Why libraries still need books on shelves

I grew up in libraries. Summer days were spent blissfully in the mobile library that came to my neighborhood every week. Every week I’d escape the blistering heat outdoors and enter an air conditioned magic castle. To me, it was magic. I would spend hours gazing at the shelves of books, taking out any one that caught my eye. I checked out at least 10 at a time, devouring them over and over until the next week’s visit. Thinking back on this time still makes me happy–I was a solitary kid, not many friends, but books filled in that gap and I made many, many friends among the intriguingly scented pages. I still love the smell of books in a library.

So when I heard about an article that advocated retaining the stacks in a campus library in lieu of moving them offsite, I was intrigued. In the article, Ann Michael, writing coordinator at DeSales University, recommends keeping the books onsite, even though as writing coordinator she would benefit from having the extra space. She wants instructors to push their students into the stacks, allowing them to get lost, allowing them to make serendipitous discoveries. As she puts it,

“The curious, inquisitive, emotional human mind — which is not an algorithm seeking one specific text or trained upon one set of parameters only — can find on those shelves a physical object that provides something unavailable through virtual technologies.”

A physical book can also be something beautiful in and of itself, with a tactile element lost in a world of electronic devices. And browsing in real time teaches students that finding good, reliable information sources takes time. Having a real, live librarian help with a search in a way that no software program can, and having a physical being there to share in a “Eureka” moment can enhance the whole library experience. As well, “books offer more chances for surprise and delight,” says Michael. The physical experience of interacting with book, the titles on the spine inviting deep thought and contemplation, may just offer a student a chance to find something that will change their life.

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How well does Pre-K prepare children?

I’ve ranted about this before. Maybe, with enough evidence from studies like this, we can go back to kindergarten being what it’s supposed to be: a place for children to learn to interact with others, develop social skills, and just be kids. In other words, let them play. Why throw money into a program that isn’t showing clear positive results? The Finnish study I referenced before says “play is a very efficient way of learning for children…and we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”

Learning with joy. I’ve seen what curriculum is like for pre-K and kindergarten, and in my mind it’s too focused on achievement. Arja-Sisko Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education, says “those things you learn without joy you forget easily.” Joy. What a simple word, and what a lot to convey in a simple word. We need to bring back joy into our youngest students’ lives, allowing them time to be what they are, children who eagerly look forward to coming together with their classmates for play.

Learning can take place organically, as each child shows interest and becomes ready. It doesn’t have to be pushed to meet some arbitrary state standard of learning. “There’s no solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So if there are no advantages to teaching kids to read in kindergarten, why push for more funds to teach it to pre-K?

Hopefully the pendulum will start to swing back to a happy medium in this country sooner rather than later. I hope that US education lawmakers will take a stronger look at the early education programs in Finland that lead to such amazing results later in high school, where the Finns have been outperforming the US on something called the Program for International Student Assessment. And Finland wasn’t always seen as such a powerhouse–it’s only been within the last 40 years that Finnish education policies have allowed it to surpass most other countries in assessment of 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading.

I want US education policies to reflect a more humanitarian aspect of learning, placing less emphasis on standardized testing and more on the child as a whole person. I remember the stress and pressure my kids were under in kindergarten. Spelling tests. Reading instruction. At the time I just did the best I could to encourage them and help them along. I want this to change for future generations. I want to bring joy back into the classroom, not only at the primary but at the secondary level. Joy. Is it such a difficult concept?

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Infographic on excess Internet use

Yep, there’s more on the “Internet changes your brain structure” issue. Check out the infographic on this blog–the author has looked into multiple studies that document that excessive Internet use affects the way the brain develops, and not always in a positive way. He linked to a few studies, like this one from Scientific American, that are investigating how continuous Internet use physically changes the brain. The conclusions reached are still inconclusive, though, and the debate still rages over whether constant Internet availability and the subsequent brain changes have net negative consequences.

There’s no doubt that we live in a more inter-connected age, and that information is flowing faster than ever. It’s been said, “getting information from the Internet is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant.” (Finding the original quote was interesting–the above link to the quote is the earliest I could find, from 2000.)  It may be inevitable that our brains will indeed wire themselves differently as it’s impossible to go back to a time without all that connectivity. I’m hoping for an ultimate “moderation in all things” type of response. I want the pendulum to swing back a bit and people to put down their electronic devices in order to more fully interact with one another in person. (The media could do its part by creating advertisements advocating a break from electronic data, but yeah, that’s not going to happen.)

Part of me wants to shake the collective world’s shoulders and entreat them to disconnect, just for a little while, once in a while. Part of me recognizes the futility of that dream. But I’ll continue to be a one-woman advocate for unplugging from time to time, if only to make sure that your significant other hasn’t been replaced by a robot. :o)

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AP classes don’t really help students excel in college

I’ve just read an article from Brookings that states that Advanced Placement classes aren’t all that effective at preparing students for college, or at predicting college completion rates. This makes me curious and a little concerned; I’ve long thought that taking an AP class would allow one to gain precious credit for a college course. Turns out, not so much apparently. Dartmouth College stopped taking perfect AP scores of 5 in Psychology in 2013, concerned that AP classes weren’t as rigorous as college classes. And researchers found at the University of Sydney that “students with no background in senior high school physics are generally not disadvantaged.” Concerned that the studies consulted didn’t cover a wide-enough area, Brookings consulted thousands of transcripts from the Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal Study and found evidence that confirmed the theory that advanced classes in high school do not prepare students for college-level work.

The study postulates that it isn’t so much that students aren’t learning as it is they are not learning the right things, aren’t focusing on critical thinking, or have forgotten what they’ve learned. And most colleges are making students take an introductory course on writing and argument anyway, as even students from top schools aren’t performing at levels required for post-secondary education.

What to do? The study isn’t suggesting rejecting AP classes out of hand, even though AP class curriculum is limiting, with little creativity allowed for teachers. The authors suggest technical education and “non-cognitive skill development” as better strategies to encourage college completion, rather than the repetitive drilling on subject content so prevalent in AP classes, and enriching classes with creativity and life skills.

This article made me think. I had a “college prep” high school career, even though I only took two years of math. (It was the ’70’s.) I had a rich elective set. I thought I was ready for college level coursework. Erm, no. I took English 101 my first semester in college, which graphically illustrated to me my inability to write a coherent research paper.  Turns out that one college English class was probably the most valuable of my scholastic career, and I’m most grateful to that teacher whose name I’ve long since forgotten.

I would love to see richer content and deeper delving into subjects by teachers constrained by “teaching to the test.” Bring back shop and home ec and woodworking. Free up some time to continue discussions sparked by students, rather than having to immediately go on to the next segment dictated by a test. Let students really learn, and by doing so, increase the likelihood of completing college. Encourage creativity and problem-solving, not how to take a multiple choice exam.

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Sleep or the lack thereof

So, yeah, sleep. We’re not getting enough of it, either as adults or as adolescents. I listened to a story on NPR this morning about how lack of sleep is making employees cranky and less productive, making them perform at the level of mild intoxication. I’ve already championed the cause of taking naps, and the NPR story suggested that employers who provide “nap rooms” may boost productivity.

Sleep deprivation affects brain function, memory, heart health and makes people prone to depression, diabetes, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Also, “a brain that is hungry for sleep will get it, even when you don’t expect it.” (National Sleep Foundation)  Fall asleep in class much? What about during meetings?

All this is another good reason to turn off the electronic devices at a reasonable hour to allow ourselves more shut-eye. The effects of sleep deprivation have been fairly intensely studied, and it doesn’t matter if you are majorly sleep-deprived or only partially sleep-deprived — mood is affected, motor functions are affected, and a host of other physical and mental processes are affected, none for the good. Skipping sleep can be harmful, or even deadly, especially if you’re behind the wheel, which documents more than 100,000 car crashes a year due to drowsiness.

So turn off the TV, leave your phone downstairs, and get to bed in time to allow yourself 7-8 hours of sleep, the amount recommended if you’re an adult, or 9-10 hours a night if you’re a teenager. Reap the benefits and we’ll all be the better for it. (Yes, I need to follow my own advice…)

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Interactive screen time vs. TV

I have long been a proponent of kicking electronic devices out of the classroom, and I just found more evidence that interactive screen time (Internet surfing, social media use, texting, etc.) contributes to physical changes such as smaller brain size and cognitive malfunction. There are studies in respected medical journals that affirm those findings: they state that excessive screen time (or even just “regular” screen exposure) impairs brain structure and neurological function, with much of the damage occurring in the brain’s frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is where massive changes occur from puberty to young adulthood, and it “determines success in every area of life–from a sense of well-being to academic/career success to relationship skills.” (Psychology Today)

A study by Lin, Zhou, Lei, et al., summarizes it this way: “Taken together, [studies show] Internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.” Brain scan research findings include grey matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness, impaired cognitive functioning, and cravings and impaired dopamine function. In other words, electronic device addiction is really bad for you, but especially so for those with young, developing brains. As a result, children are suffering from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system: what is called electronic screen syndrome.

So, screen time is making kids moody, crazy and lazy, and it’s changing the physical structure of their brains. What else is new? I see the effects every day in the teens I work with. I see the fractured attention spans, the apathy, the poor focus, and the often explosive and aggressive behavior. I see it in the lack of respect, both for their peers and for authority. I see it as they walk along in the hallways with their heads buried in their phones. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

What can be done to mitigate the effects of screen addiction? Another study I found states that all young people can benefit from a tech fast (from gaming, smartphones, laptops, iPads). This means no interactive screen time for a solid three to four weeks. Refraining from tech use can help to restore sleep patterns, enhance mood and increase relaxation, contribute to better focus, and improve relations in school/work, home life, and social interactions. Reconnecting with nature and green spaces can also lead to increased physical activity, perhaps helping reduce the high amount of obesity running rampant across the country.

The problem, as I see it, is getting parents on board with the idea of eliminating technology for any period of time. They are often the worst offenders in texting their children during class, leading to the assertion, “Well, I had to respond, it’s my mom!” Bollocks. Parents shouldn’t be contacting their children during the school day; if it’s an emergency, call the front office to inform the student between classes, just like the good ol’ days. (It seems the parents need the break from technology as much as their kids do.) But if parents can be made to see the light, giving kids a sustained break from technology can lead to many rewards.

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