Category Archives: General

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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Your Career May Depend on You Quitting Social Media

That title is a paraphrase of a byline from an article on the New York Times website. It also appeared in print in the Business Section on page 8 on November 20, 2016. Cal Newport, the author of the article, claims that by continually monitoring your social media sites, you reduce your ability to achieve success in your working life. “Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated,” he says. “The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about.” In other words, it requires an ability to put distractions aside and work. The ability to put aside distractions in order to focus on a specific task is becoming a hot commodity in the professional workplace. Social media can diminish that ability because it is by its very nature addictive. Your brain craves that instant hit of recognition, to the detriment of deep, unencumbered thinking.

“The idea of purposefully introducing into my life a service designed to fragment my attention is as scary to me as the idea of smoking would be to an endurance athlete, and it should be to you if you’re serious about creating things that matter,” says Newport. He purposefully does not have any social media accounts–he’s a computer scientist who writes books and also runs a blog. His conscious decision to remove himself from the world of social media in order to focus more completely on his work is counter to what many think of as a way to find opportunities they might otherwise not discover, and to cultivate contacts that will help with future job promotion.

I’ve seen the diminishment of the ability to concentrate and focus firsthand among my high school students. They can’t go more than a few minutes without checking in with the monster in their hand. The idea that “smartphones” (quotations mine) are here to stay and we have to work with them in education is a double-edged sword. We got along fine without them 10-15 years ago. And I’m not saying that there’s any way to go back–the addiction to these attention-sucking monsters affects more than 80 percent of young adults who say they “couldn’t live without” their electronic device.

At some point, of course, I hope the pendulum will swing back, and that people will find a way to cure their addiction and re-engage with each other and with their work. Employers are looking for people who can collaborate with one another to solve problems, and it doesn’t mean via Skype or Snapchat. Face to face communication will remain a dynamic part of working life, as will being able to work independently and deeply on projects. Hopefully (I seem to use that work a lot), people will be able to set aside their instant connection devices and live up to their employer’s expectations. I shudder to think what will  happen if they do not.

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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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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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One Bad Tweet Can Ruin Your Whole Day

“Never let a 140 character tweet cost you a $140,000 scholarship,” tweeted Brandon Chambers, an assistant men’s basketball coach at Marymount (VA) University. Three years earlier, a potential basketball scholarship athlete had his recruitment brutally terminated because of his Twitter activity, which the coaches said “did not represent what the university was about.” (USA Today, Jan. 5, 2015) More and more, colleges (and businesses) are requiring applicants to provide social media IDs to better screen who would be the best “fit” and to evaluate character. Woe be to him or her who posts inappropriate material, whether offensive language, derogatory comments, or incriminating photos. “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences”, says David Petroff, director of athletic communications at Edgewood (Wis.) College.Teens need to realize and take responsibility for their online actions just as carefully as physical ones.

Many college and university athletic directors are using social media to check out the integrity of their potential athletes. It’s important to remember that once you put something out in the Twitterverse or on Instagram, it’s out there, it’s public. There are plenty of examples of celebrities tweeting something rash, only to have to retract it after public outcry. In the collegiate athletic world, you don’t even get that chance. (Pro football player rants abound, however–go figure.)

I have a moderate to low social media presence by choice. I have a Facebook page, Twitter (rarely use), Instagram (even more rarely), a blog, and a LinkedIn account that I haven’t updated in years. I post only those things that I could shout in church, and I’m constantly reminding my students to think before they send anything out onto the interwebs. If one bad tweet can ruin an athlete’s career (or any career for that matter), it behooves all of us to remind our teens of the calamitous effect of posting without reflection. (Of course, the whole “think before you speak/act” phrase has been around for ages…)

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Teaching kindness

We spend a lot of time talking about bullying and bullying prevention, but not very much time talking about kindness. In a recent blog post from Edutopia, the magazine from the George Lucas Education Foundation, Lisa Currie talks about why it’s important to teach kindness in schools, before the issue of bullying gets out of hand. “When children are able to experience the feel-good emotions that are produced when being kind, it enables them to see the world in a more positive light,” she says. “By building respectful relationships and being kind to their teachers and peers, a culture of kindness emerges to reduce bullying and create safe and inviting environments.”

This is important in a society like today’s, where teens mock and belittle each other with frightening results. My own daughter has experienced this, which I find absolutely horrifying. Worse, it came from an ex-boyfriend who was trying to re-establish a relationship with her. Not the way to do things, not by a long shot. One of her girlfriends is also talking trash about her–I’ve seen the texts. The cruelty of adolescents never ceases to amaze me.

I think Ms. Currie is on the right path. Teaching kindness to children right from the beginning as part of the curriculum may curb some of the rudeness so rampant these days. Continuing to teach kindness in middle and high school can only help reinforce the lessons introduced at the elementary level. We can’t control what kids learn at home, but we have them for seven hours a day; surely we as teachers can do something to stem the tide of disrespect and insolence that is so prevalent.

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School Start Times & Adolescents

The American Association of Pediatrics has issued a report on the effect of lack of sleep on adolescents, which contributes to a variety of issues, including obesity, mood disorders, and impaired academic performance. I’ve long felt that teenagers don’t get enough sleep during the school year; the early start times, coupled with after-school activities and jobs, plus homework, all combine to add up to sleepy, over-extended kids. The AAP “endorses…later school start times, and acknowledges the potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.” In addition to delaying school start times, the AAP states that it is also necessary to educate parents and the community that comes into contact with the teenagers of the importance of them getting 8.5 – 9.5 hours of sleep per night. These stakeholders need to know about the scientific rationale behind the proposition to delay the start of school. Naps, sleeping longer on weekends, and coffee can only do so much toward ameliorating the sleep debt racked up by adolescents. Starting school later would allow them to get the necessary amount of shut-eye, and research indicates that this would improve many common teen ailments. We need to all get on board with this — we owe it to our kids for them to be as happy and healthy as possible. This is a start.

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Another professor is backing up my argument…

…about eliminating electronic devices from the classroom. Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU, recently published a blog post about why he doesn’t want students using technology during his fall seminar. He teaches theory and practice of social media, and he studies the effects of the Internet on society. He is, as he himself admits, an unlikely candidate for Internet censor, but he has come to the same conclusion that I have myself, backed up by scientific research, that multi-tasking in the classroom prevents the kind of deep thinking required by a college curriculum. In other words, cell phones and laptops are an unwelcome distraction; Shirky states that “computer hardware and software are being professionally designed to distract” and that in a contest between Facebook and his class, he loses. He also cites a study that finds that screens distract in a manner akin to second-hand smoke–the person sitting next to someone on their phone or laptop is also distracted from the task at hand.

It was this last study that tipped Shirky into the “no devices in the classroom” camp. He’s long believed that “device use in class tends to be a net negative,” but when one person’s decision to use technology adversely affects others around them, the gig is up. Shirky says “some parts of making your brain do new things are just hard,” and it takes concentration and focus to concentrate on the hard stuff long enough to get it to a useful place; i.e., long-term memory. He sees instruction as a collaboration between himself and his students, and technology use in his classroom interferes with that collaborative effort.

I am so glad that I am not alone in championing the “no technology use” in the classroom. We’ll just have to be that much more attractive to our students so that they don’t even want to use their devices in class, that’s all.

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Learning a foreign language is a crucial skill

I hear the whining all the time at school: “Why do I have to learn a foreign language? Everybody in the world speaks English.” Yes, but you can’t always count on it, and by learning a new language you learn about a new culture, a different way of life. Discovering a culture other than one’s own is an incredibly enriching, eye-opening and sometimes mind-bending experience. Not to mention the fact that in today’s global marketplace, chances are good that at some time in your career you will be working with someone from another country. Or you may be transferred to another country in which your company has a branch. Alan November, an education technology consultant, apparently is fond of recounting a story about a conversation he had with a senior executive at a global investment bank. November asked the executive what was the most important skill a student should learn for future success. The answer? Empathy – the ability to understand and respect different points of view. The marketing executive stated that it was easy enough to find smart, talented workers, less so to find those that were able to empathize with the needs and values of different nations.

Learning a different language helps build this cultural empathy. And a growing number of k-12 leaders are starting to realize that exposure to foreign languages and cultures, even from a very early age, is critical to student success and forms an integral part of being a global citizen. I can personally attest to the value of learning a language from the elementary years–I started learning French and German in fourth grade, Spanish in sixth. I kept up with my French studies in high school, eventually earning a double major in French and Anthropology. But I remember enough of both German and Spanish to be able to hold a rudimentary conversation even though more than 40 years have elapsed. And learning a language at an even earlier age, like preschool, can result in native or near-native pronunciation and intonation. That’s why, in part, that the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recommends that students “be provided the opportunity to learn a second language as early as possible in school.” Other benefits to learning foreign languages in the early grades include “strengthening of literacy in students’ first language, raising standardized test scores in other subject areas, and developing comfort with cultural differences,” the council states.

This is nothing new to most European nations, who start teaching English to very young students in preschool. As my students noted earlier, most foreign students speak English fairly well by the time they reach their teens, so they balk at having to learn something other than their mother tongue, which some of them speak and write only marginally well into the bargain. But until the great education policy makers in places of power get on board with the fact that learning a foreign language is a critical skill necessary in today’s global marketplace, the status quo will remain, and English-speaking-only individuals will be left behind in the multi-lingual dust of their competitors.

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