Updated: Feb 17, 2022
What is the role of social studies in preventing the spread of misinformation and combating the intentional use of disinformation? Scroll to the bottom of this blog post for a link to the webinar recording of our conversation on elementary social studies with Sam Wineburg. This blog post and the associated webinar are sponsored by the inquirED and the National Council for the Social Studies.
“Social studies educators are the most important bastion that we have in creating awareness...in creating an informed citizenry.” --Sam Wineburg
Over the past few years, Americans have experienced a series of real-time history lessons. Our institutions were tested. Our constitutional guardrails were battered. Thankfully, the system held true, checking power, balancing ambition, and preserving democracy.
But our system is only as strong as the beliefs and convictions of its citizens and officials. That’s why the spread of disinformation – examined in our latest webinar, “Social Studies in the Age of Disinformation” – is so toxic to democracy: Disinformation infects democracy at its roots, distorting facts and manipulating opinions.
Sam Wineburg, founder and Executive Director of the Stanford History Education Group and Stanford's Ph.D. program in History Education, joined us to talk about the role social studies teachers can play in combating this disinformation and shoring up the foundations of our democracy. “Social studies teachers are the guardians of democracy,” Wineburg stated. “If there is anything that social studies teachers stand for, it’s defending the pillars of democracy.”
Shanti Elangovan, inquirED’s Founder and CEO, conducted a wide-ranging interview with Wineburg during the webinar. They started their conversation by clarifying the meaning of two terms that are frequently used interchangeably: “misinformation” and “disinformation.”:
“Misinformation” is factually incorrect information that is spread without malicious intent by individuals or groups. “Think of it as digital littering,” Wineburg said. “We are throwing pieces of digital content out into the cyber world, and they get picked up.”
“Disinformation” is factually incorrect information that is spread with the express intent of deceiving, misleading, or influencing an audience. The goals of those who spread disinformation are varied, but many, according to Wineburg, are “mischief makers” doing it “precisely to cause mischief and confuse people.”
Preparing students to combat disinformation requires a refocusing of past efforts. When the Common Core State Standards were published, they placed a strong emphasis on developing students’ close reading skills. These skills encourage students to pay extremely close attention to every aspect of a source in order to extract the maximum amount of meaning from it.
According to Wineburg, close reading is particularly important when there is a scarcity of sources (for example, when students are decoding a primary source document), but it shouldn’t dictate the way that we interact with information in the digital age. “There’s only one Gettysburg Address,” Wineburg said, “so we want to close read it – but if you think about the internet, we are in exactly the opposite situation [to scarcity]: We have an overabundance of sources.”
Just take a second to imagine closely reading every article that comes across your newsfeed and Wineburg’s point becomes clear: Close reading is not the right tool to help students sort through the blizzard of information they encounter on the internet. But if close reading isn’t helpful, what mindsets and strategies can help students?
Mindsets and Strategies
Overloading students with information and strategies in order to help them deal with information overload is as absurd as it sounds. Social studies teachers need to choose their battles wisely and ensure that the strategies they give students are targeted. Wineburg shared a few mindsets and strategies that teachers may want to emphasize.
Strategic Ignoring: “It’s a very funny idea when you think about it,” Wineburg said about teaching students to ignore information, “but part of reading on the internet is developing the skills to ignore great amounts of information.” It’s an important shift in thinking: The power of attention is also its inverse – the power to ignore – and encouraging students to embrace strategic ignoring can empower them to avoid disinformation and focus on content that is worth their attention.
Lateral Reading: Wineburg and SHEG promote lateral reading as a critical tool to enable students to quickly dismiss unhelpful or biased information. Traditionally, students were taught to read and evaluate a piece of content on the internet vertically, investigating traits like accuracy, relevancy, and presentation to determine the source’s worth. Wineburg called it “playing a game of 20 questions,” and related that it’s “not what skilled users of the internet do.” Instead, skilled fact-checkers engage in lateral reading before deciding whether or not they should read a source closely. They open up multiple tabs, reading across the internet to determine the validity of a source. “It’s using the power of the network,” Wineburg said. “It’s absolutely crucial to what it means to do research in a digital era.”
Evidence and Source Connection: The Common Core’s focus on the overwhelming importance of evidence to support claims has created a disconnect between a piece of evidence and its source. Finding statistics and examples is important but relatively worthless if they are not connected to a reliable source. “We are talking about one of the most basic understandings that an elementary school student can develop,” Wineburg said, “that evidence and its source are conjoined.”
The following resources relate to the issues and ideas discussed during the webinar.
Stanford History Education Group (SHEG): The Stanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum and Beyond the Bubble assessments have been downloaded more than 9 million times. SHEG's current work focuses on how young people evaluate online content. SHEG has created a Civic Online Reasoning curriculum to help students develop the skills needed to navigate our current digital landscape.
Civic Online Reasoning: One of SHEG’s core projects, the goal of the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum is to help middle and high school students become more skilled evaluators of online content.
Why we need a new approach to teaching digital literacy: Article from the Phi Delta Kappan, co-written by webinar guest Sam Wineburg, describing how students should turn to the power of the web to determine its trustworthiness.
Digital Hacks: Resources from Sam Wineburg –with the following disclaimer: “This advice does not guarantee foolproof web searching. It does make the promise that if you follow it, you will make fewer bonehead errors and arrive at better, more reliable information.”
From Digital Native to Digital Expert: To suss out the credibility of digital information, students should go beyond checklists and act more like fact-checkers
As you continue to make the case for elementary social studies, keep connecting with colleagues from all over the country through organizations like NCSS — and stay tuned to our webinar series to connect with others who are passionate about elementary social studies.
View the webinar recording below:
inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, offering a customizable, digital curriculum that supports teachers in shifting to student-centered instruction. inquirED delivers year-long, student-centered curriculum and assessment with engaging content and activities for students and embedded professional learning for teachers. Inquiry Journeys is inquirED’s core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys is a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum with embedded PD that helps teachers shift their practice to a more inquiry-based approach. Learn More.
About our Panelists and Hosts
Sam Wineburg Sam Wineburg is the founder and Executive Director of the Stanford History Education Group and Stanford's Ph.D. program in History Education. He also oversees the M.A. program for future history teachers. His scholarship has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the New Yorker, and on NPR and C-SPAN. In 2003 his book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, received the Frederic W. Ness Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for the most important contribution to "improvement of Liberal Education and understanding the Liberal Arts."
Founder and CEO, inquirED
After obtaining an M.Ed from Columbia University, Shanti Elangovan moved from classroom teacher to coach to curriculum director. Eager to help educational organizations scale their impact, she went on to earn an MBA. Shanti quickly put those skills to work by envisioning and implementing strategies to grow National Center for Teacher Residencies’ impact. In 2017 Shanti founded inquirED to scale the use and impact of inquiry-based learning, a powerful teaching pedagogy that prepares students for the 21st century.
Communication Director, inquirED
Martin has taught for 20 years at the K-12 and college levels. As a Social Studies and Latin teacher in Ohio, he developed narrative-based middle school Latin and high school World History curricula. After earning an MFA in Theatre, Martin co-founded Working Group Theatre, helping to create over 15 original plays to educate children and adults. His work has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Metlife Foundation, and others. Martin joined inquirED in December 2017.