What’s at Stake?
Our Democracy is at Risk
By Sam Wineburg
Founder and faculty director of the Stanford History Education Group
University of Connecticut professor Michael Lynch calls the internet "both the world’s best fact checker and the world’s best bias confirmer—often at the same time."
I’ve come to believe that reliable information is to civic health what clean water and proper sanitation are to public health. Never has so much information been at our fingertips as it is today. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on one thing: our educational response to this challenge.
A counter-intuitive realization
So-called "digital natives" may be able to flit between Instagram and Twitter while uploading a video and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information, they’re easily duped. A survey we did with thousands of students from middle school to college showed the depth of the challenge. Eighty-two percent of middle school students mistook advertisements for news. High school students took an image posted anonymously on a photo sharing site as evidence of the ecological effects of a nuclear disaster. College students rated a splinter group of pediatricians (labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) as more reliable than the 64,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics.
We found that many of the ideas students brought to the internet, such as be suspicious of .com URLs but trust .org URLs, haven't been true since dial-up modems were used to get online.
A tool for teachers
Our Civic Online Reasoning (COR) curriculum is based on strategies we identified when observing fact checkers from the nation’s most prestigious news organizations. The curriculum is the fruit of years of research and field-testing. Our work is enriched by our ongoing collaboration with the Poynter Institute, and our participation in the MediaWise initiative, with support from Google.org.
The resources you’ll find on the COR site have been tested in real classrooms. Teaching students these skills won’t turn them into professional fact checkers, but it'll take a bite out of the most common errors students make.
Our students are speeding along the information superhighway without a license. Before letting them loose, let’s at least make sure they’ve passed the drivers’ test.
The future of Civic Online Reasoning
It’s our desire that the skills students learn through the COR curriculum will not only make them better students, but better informed citizens able to participate in our democracy in an educated and responsible way. In a broader sense, we hope that they will share their skills and inform others about these methods.
Lastly, we see these skills as transferable to everyone. It’s our hope that everyone in the US (and beyond) learns how to evaluate information sources using the COR principles. The health of our democracy depends on it.