Draining the swamp of fake news and confirmation bias

For the past couple of weeks, I have made a conscious effort to avoid most post-election analysis. I feel the need to step back and breathe before I can see the big picture with any clarity, and I have no desire to add to the overwhelming amount of background noise already out there. But, as an educator specializing in vertical learning, I do have a couple of constructive points to make on the discussions around fake news and confirmation bias.

While there are certainly many steps we can and probably should take to reduce the proliferation of fake news and encourage people to increase their exposure to alternative viewpoints, it ultimately comes down to critical thinking skills, curiosity, and open-mindedness. If I’m constantly questioning my assumptions, testing my theories, and trying to understand why other people think differently—I’m not going to blindly accept any news (fake or otherwise) or limit myself to life inside an echo chamber.

But isn’t that the holy grail of education? Haven’t we been trying to help students develop critical thinking skills, curiosity, and open-mindedness for decades—without much success? Well, yes and no. While it is the holy grail of education, it’s also something we could be doing right now.

In Why We Should Learn Vertically, my first article on Medium, I describe how a small team of teachers designed a sixth-grade algebra unit to support and encourage students in constructing sophisticated mental models for linear functions. Within a week, students were actively testing and revising their own theories, eagerly uncovering misconceptions and errors in thinking in an effort to deepen their own understanding. Instead of avoiding any new data that might prove a theory wrong, they embraced new data as another opportunity for growth and learning.

Keep in mind that students shifted to an active, open, and constructivist mindset in a traditional school setting following a math curriculum aligned to state standards. Most of these students had little prior interest in math, and many of them could be described as math-phobic—but they became so engaged in the study of linear functions that they overcame their natural fear of failure to develop a genuine interest and curiosity in algebra. Why?

If we want people to embrace cognitive dissonance, drill down to uncover hidden assumptions, and revise their own thinking in the face of new data, then we need to do two things. First, we need to give them the tools and opportunities to revise their own thinking. Second, we need to demonstrate that the risk and effort is worth it—revising your thinking impacts your life in positive and meaningful ways.

In the sixth-grade algebra unit, we provided students with the tools and opportunities to revise their own thinking. And when they used those tools and opportunities, they were able to do things that they never believed they could do. They felt powerful as thinkers and learners; and even though it was in a domain they didn’t particularly care about—algebra—they could see those new skills and habits of mind translating to domains they did care about.

The same thing happened in The Résumé Project. On the surface, students were learning how to write a résumé. But if that’s where the unit had stopped, students never would have taken the risk to push themselves and hone their writing. It was only when they recognized how the act of writing could be clarifying, revealing new insights that were beneficial in real life, that students began to truly invest in the writing process. Here were a set of skills that scaled well beyond the page and the classroom.

As educators, it’s easy for us to say we believe in helping students develop critical thinking skills, curiosity, and open-mindedness—but what does that look like in our classrooms? Go through your curriculum with a critical eye. When are students revising their own thinking in significant ways? And if you were a student, would you feel that those revisions were well-worth the time and effort? If not, what are we doing?