NAPERVILLE, Ill. — As young people face a tsunami of information from countless online sources—including from influencers and social media— it’s also becoming more challenging to filter out what’s true and what’s not.
A pilot program at one school is trying to make high schoolers more discerning about the information they find.
Inside Adrianne Toomey’s 9th-grade biology class, students are learning more than science.
For the last two years, the Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois has been taking part in a pilot program, integrating news literacy into subjects like biology and geography.
“As we go throughout the entire year, it's repeatedly embedding it into, ‘How can I use this and I'm actually applying it in that moment?’” said Toomey.
Researchers at the Stanford History Education Group recently completed the largest study of its kind, analyzing high schoolers' ability to evaluate real sources online.
“Unfortunately, our research has shown that students struggle to make even basic evaluations of online information,” said Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group.
Following six years of study, Breakstone and his colleagues developed the pilot news literacy curriculum being used at Neuqua Valley High.
“What we've set out to do is try to help people be more discerning when it comes to the content that streams across their screens,” said Breakstone.
According to the advocacy group, Media Literacy Now, at least 14 states—including Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Utah— have some media literacy language on the books today. Others are following suit.
School librarian Carrie Ory says freshmen here now have a toolkit to help them fact check before they share.
“They look at Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat constantly, and we want to make sure that every time they think, ‘Oh, that's an interesting idea,’ they stop and realize who it is that they're actually listening to,” said Ory.
The curriculum teaches them to distinguish between reliable sources, misinformation, and politically or financially motivated sources.
“Even when we're just like doing things for fun, it's better to have some sense in your mind, ‘Maybe this isn't exactly what I should be reading’ or ‘Maybe this isn't exactly what's right. Let me check just for safety,’” said Avyn Harris, a Neuqua Valley High School freshman.
Breakstone found that one strategy that helped students weed out dubious information most effectively is something called lateral reading.
“Rather than reading up and down on an unfamiliar website, they open new tabs in their browsers and read across the tabs; they read laterally,” said Breakstone.
World geography teacher Deanna Lindsey regularly tests her students with content to determine its reliability.
“We have done it at the 9th-grade level, hoping that we can scaffold it through all four years of high school,” said Lindsey.
It appears to be working. Students are getting better at spotting questionable sources.
“I don't want to put all my like trust into random places on the internet,” said Alhena Tajuddin a 9th-grader at Neuqua Valley High School. “When I don't know who they are, I don't know who they work for. I don't know where they're getting their information from.”
Next school year, curriculums like this will become mandatory across the state.