Rand Corp just released a substantive report on the US’s diminishing respect for facts and expert analysis. As it may relate to our teaching of information literacy, civic engagement, and critical thinking, I thought to highlight some passages to share.
If you are trying to convince your administration to work more required library time and/or information instruction into the curriculum, Rand makes a convincing argument. Here are some highlights that particularly pertain to the instruction of information literacy:
This erosion of trust in and reliance on facts, data, and analysis has affected not just political and civil discourse: It has also invaded other spheres, including trust in science and even individual decisionmaking in such areas as health and financial planning. This report is primarily concerned with the effects of Truth Decay in the areas of political and civil discourse and its implications for public policy. In order to clarify our argument, we draw examples from a broad range of topics that are currently debated within these spheres, including the safety of vaccines and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), climate change, immigration policy, trends in national crime rates, and health care.
Competing demands on the educational system that limit its ability to keep pace with changes in the information system.6 As the information system has become increasingly complex, competing demands and fiscal constraints on the educational system have reduced the emphasis on civic education, media literacy, and critical thinking. Students need exactly this type of knowledge and these skills to effectively evaluate information sources, identify biases, and separate fact from opinion and falsehood. This gap between the challenges of the information system and the training provided to students drives and perpetuates Truth Decay by contributing to the creation of an electorate that is susceptible to consuming and disseminating disinformation, misinformation, and information that blur the line between fact and opinion.
As the information system changes and evolves, the U.S. educational system faces increasing demands from a number of sources, including the responsibility to prepare students to confront a more complicated and challenging information system, to evaluate information and sources, and to distinguish between opinion and fact. This responsibility is added to a growing list of new and preexisting demands: standardized tests, extracurricular activities, before- and after-school care, and other services. At the same time, schools are facing budget constraints. The fiscal constraints and demands placed on the educational system and the resulting gap between the rapidly evolving challenges of the new information system and the curricula offered to students in most public schools constitute the third key driver of Truth Decay. This gap drives and perpetuates Truth Decay by contributing centrally to the development of a citizenry that is susceptible to consuming and disseminating disinformation, misinformation, and information that blur the line between fact and opinion. Specifically, without the training that they need to carefully evaluate sources, to identify and check their own biases, and to separate opinion and fact, students matriculating out of schools that teach kindergarten through 12th grade (K–12)—which is the focus in this report—or universities may be highly vulnerable to false and misleading information and easy targets for intentional disinformation campaigns and propaganda. Furthermore, once consuming this information themselves, these users are more likely to pass the information along to others, perpetuating the challenges that Truth Decay poses and contributing to a context in which Truth Decay flourishes.
we focus on two areas that our analysis suggests could be the most directly related to the ways in which competing demands on the educational system contribute to Truth Decay: the crowding out of civics education and the reduced time spent on training students in critical thinking skills. We focus on schools (primarily K–12 schools) in this section because they provide the most direct route for educating large portions of the electorate during a particularly formative period. However, civic and media literacy is equally absent from college curricula in most cases. Furthermore, educating adults in these areas and ensuring that they too have the ability to critically evaluate information is also crucially important, especially in the near term, and programs to teach media literacy and civic engagement to adults are equally lacking. A solution to Truth Decay will need to better prepare both youths and adults to confront the information system they face by analyzing, critically assessing, and digesting news and social media as they receive it.
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. As the information system changes and the volume and speed of information increase dramatically, the ability to filter and evaluate information—a skill imparted by classes that include a component on critical thinking—becomes increasingly vital. Similarly, an increase in the diversity and number of sources increase the importance of understanding what it means to be an “educated and engaged consumer of news,” including understanding which and how many sources to consult. If this type of training is not a foundational part of elementary and secondary school education, there is a risk that students will graduate from high school without the skills they need to navigate today’s challenging information system. This might increase students’ susceptibility to disinformation or to the influences of their own biases or the biases of others. In addition to consuming and accepting false, misleading, or opinion-based news as fact, they might also share this information with others, thus contributing to a context in which Truth Decay flourishes
An often-overlooked aspect of media literacy and civic engagement is the ability to understand and interpret statistics and probability, which are used in public opinion polls and media coverage on almost every topic, ranging from health care and unemployment to immigration and foreign policy. The ability to interpret and evaluate statistics—a sort of “quantitative literacy”—could be as necessary to being an informed and engaged citizen in today’s society as being able to analyze and evaluate different news sources. Without an ability to understand and interpret statistics, newly graduated students (as well as those still in school) may be easily swayed by false and misleading information and may pass it along to others. Shortcomings in statistics education, then, might be another way in which gaps in the existing educational system can, over time, create an electorate that is ripe for Truth Decay and its four trends
Many teachers recognize the importance of these standards but also report a lack of resources (i.e., money or time) needed for full implementation. For example, several studies found that some administrators have resisted including digital literacy in school curricula because they perceive digital media as being inferior to conventional media or even harmful to student literacy in a more-traditional sense.165 As another example, a survey of U.S. teachers involved in literacy education who were asked to identify obstacles to implementation of digital literacy courses cited lack of time as the most significant obstacle, followed by lack of access to technology, lack of professional development training to enable them to instruct the material, lack of technical support, and lack of incentives.166 Finally, critics argue that the new standards do not go far enough in addressing some of the gaps between the current curricula used in most schools and the challenges presented by the information environment and thus may continue to produce young adults who are highly susceptible to Truth Decay and the disinformation and blurring of the line between opinion and fact that come with it.16
Even if this is not a new concern, there are reasons why a lack of focus on critical thinking in schools might be particularly worrisome now, viewed through the lens of Truth Decay. Specifically, critical-thinking skills are necessary to distinguish fact from opinion and to screen out misleading information, bias, and low-quality sources. These skills become more important as the information system grows more complex. A lack of training in these areas could increase the vulnerability of graduating students and recently graduated young adults to misleading information, intentional disinformation, or opinion and bias and may perpetuate Truth Decay as students consume and disseminate this information.
The gap between the requirements of the new information system and the training provided by schools in such areas as civic and media literacy and critical thinking means that students and young adults are not able to detect, account for, and correct the blurring of the line between opinion and fact that characterizes Truth Decay, and this lack of skill could affect their interpretation and use of information. The gap between the requirements of the information system and current school curricula drives and perpetuates Truth Decay by contributing to the creation of an electorate that is highly susceptible to mis- and disinformation and to information that blurs the line between fact and opinion (or fact and falsehood) and by contributing to the creation of a context in which this information is shared and in which Truth Decay flourishes. Unless students (and adults) are able to deeply question and assess any piece of information they encounter, they are susceptible to believing or spreading false information and disinformation and are more likely to be influenced and swayed by their own emotions or the attitudes of friends in forming beliefs and making decisions. As the number and diversity of sources and the volume and speed of information increase, the ability to critically evaluate information, apply information from one area to another, and engage and analyze new information becomes more central and important to belief and opinion formation. Critical thinking and media literacy are required to complete each of those tasks—without these skills, students will leave school ill equipped to process the massive amount of information that confronts them each day through social media, television, and newspapers. This creates an environment in which Truth Decay thrives: People struggle to distinguish fact from opinion, lack trust in key institutions, and are more easily swayed by disinformation, personal opinions, and social influences, and people are more likely to share this information, passing biases on to others. Trends over the past five years are promising in terms of attention to the importance of civics education and training in critical thinking, but this effort will need to not only continue but keep pace with the continually evolving media and information system in order to both rein in and counteract Truth Decay. In suggesting that school curricula need a greater focus on civics, media literacy, and critical thinking, we understand that placing new demands on an already-overburdened educational system could create still more challenges for teachers and administrators. However, this additional emphasis on civics, media literacy, and critical thinking could be effectively integrated into existing courses and so might involve a minimal number of new requirements or demands. For example, civics instruction could easily be integrated into social studies, history, and even English classes (through assigned reading). Media literacy objectives could be incorporated into math classes in the form of probability and statistics training, as well as in research projects conducted for social studies, history, English, or other courses. 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.185 In this way, these important topics could be addressed mostly within the existing curriculum, with some small modifications.186 Most importantly, however, educators—a key element in the process of designing and implementing new material, modules, or teaching techniques— should be involved in the design of future revisions to curricula to better address the demands of the contemporary information and political system.
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