BY COURTNEY BROWN & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
Once upon a time, being literate was as simple as being able to read, write, and do arithmetic. As educators, we also know literacy is a social construction, and being literate implies that an individual has the ability to interpret, produce, understand, and interrogate language appropriately. However, our understanding of what it means to be literate in the 21st century has been further complicated by the myriad of “literacies” we’ve come to recognize, including:
As the definition of literacy has broadened, so have the modes for finding and sharing information. This has increased exponentially with advances in technology, and is indicative of the natural shift in our understanding of 21st century literacy. The need to use multiple literacies to unpack information is tied to the need to interpret the many formats, sources, or media through which we obtain information. For educators, the challenge becomes more about how we need to teach students to interpret and assess information — not simply how to gain access to it.
The trouble with technology
Literacy development that includes technology can both support traditional literacies, and introduce new forms in the classroom. Technology can support each literacy type listed above by helping students gather a range of sources that will support them in discussing their ideas. Between smartphones, tablets, voice commands, and even Alexa, information is readily available everywhere. This is great, right? Yes, except that we are finding more and more examples of misinformation and disinformation in our daily diet. Recent articles in the New York Times and other educational sites such as Teaching Kids News further explore this topic, and emphasize the importance of understanding what it means to be literate within the context of this information-heavy era.
Even if accessible information is every educator’s dream, we should not simply be giving fish to our students but rather, teaching them to fish — bolstering their literacy skills by helping them to make sense of the information around them by means other than traditional reading and writing. By teaching them how to assess the validity and intentions behind informational sources, we can empower them to raise concerns, and to verify unfamiliar or questionable sources.
Understanding misinformation & disinformation
According to Business Insider, the term misinformation refers to information that is false or inaccurate, and is often spread widely with others, regardless of an intent to deceive. Some of us may have done this ourselves and later realized that we misunderstood what we were sharing. Remember the game of telephone? One person would talk to the person next to them, and their words would travel from person to person around the room. At the end, we would often laugh at how distorted the original message had become from between the first person and the last. That is misinformation.
Misinformation can turn into disinformation when it's shared by individuals or groups who know it's wrong, yet continue to intentionally spread it to cast doubt or stir divisiveness. Often, disinformation — or what some may call “fake news” — is generated to be deliberately deceptive. As educators become clearer about the distinction, it can be better communicated to students.
Emphasize how, not what to think
To combat misinformation and disinformation, it is essential that we teach our students to become critical thinkers. Learning critical thinking skills can also enhance academic performance by developing judgement, evaluation, and problem-solving abilities. This skill also transcends into practical aspects of daily life, and ultimately into college and career readiness. We can promote these skills by letting students know that we do not have all the answers, and instead offer them opportunities to unpack and understand information on their own.
With so much information at our fingertips each day, the importance of critical thinking skills cannot be overstated — it is imperative that we teach students how to interpret facts and assess the validity of informational sources. These skills will allow them to investigate the information they’re receiving, and identify misinformation in the process, helping them to become truly literate for the modern world.