To the Members of the Committee:
My name is Sam Wineburg and I am a professor at Stanford University. I have been working on issues of digital literacy well before this phrase was on everyone’s lips (thank you, Mr. Trump). We started down this path in 2014 when my research team began noticing that otherwise clever secondary students seemed to shut off their brains the moment they went online. This observation coincided with an invitation from the Robert McCormick Foundation in Chicago to design an instrument to assess digital savvy. (I am a research psychologist by training, with an interest in new forms of tests and measurement.) The publication of our findings coincided with Mr. Trump’s election and was snapped up by news outlets all over the world, including obvious American sources like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, as well as your own BBC and Germany’s Die Zeit. What caused the stir was a survey we conducted of nearly 8,000 students, from ages 12 and 13 to university. We learned that students’ ability to distinguish truth from falsehood could be summarized in a single word: bleak.
Since this rather depressing outcome, we’ve taken the gloves off and gotten to work. With support from Google.org, we’ve field-tested an approach to digital literacy that flies in the face of the rather dated, ineffectual, and unfortunately ubiquitous “checklist approach.” In it students evaluate an online source armed with long lists of questions (e.g., is the site a dot-com or dot-org? Is an address and contact listed on its About page? is the site free of spelling errors and banner ads?). This approach plays right into the hands of rogues and bad actors who game such easily gamed factors. Our approach, in contrast, is based on research we’ve done with professional fact checkers who, when landing on an unfamiliar site, immediately leave it and consult the broader web in a strategy we call “lateral reading” (for a brief introduction see the TIME magazine article listed below).
With Google.org’s support, we are releasing a digital literacy curriculum in December focused on the kinds of skills young people will need to reach thoughtful decisions about online content. At present, people attribute so many different conceptions to the term “digital literacy” that it has virtually lost meaning. In light of this, we call what we do “Civic Online Reasoning” to stress skills that are at the core of an effective democracy in a digital age.
I am not optimistic about the prospect of our work making a big dent. To be sure, our field-studies will produce (and have produced) statistically significant findings (see the recent research report in your own British Journal of Educational Psychology, below). But whether we call this field “digital literacy” or even “Civic Online Reasoning,” the effects of such interventions will be minimal as long as it they are seen as an add-ons to the regular school curriculum. In my opinion, not until education (and educators) wake up to the digital challenge and embed these ways of vetting information in how we teach the regular school subjects (history, science, maths) we’ll see real change. (see my cri de coeur in USAToday, below).
Along with my research team, I have written about these issues in a variety of places.
For an introduction to the original survey see
WSJ report on Stanford Study
BBC podcast, “You Can Handle the Truth”
For the research base behind our curriculum:
Research Report in Teachers College Record
More complete version of the same research report posted on SSRN
Intervention Study Showing We Can ‘Move the Needle’
Chronicle of Higher Education: “Students fall for information online. Is Teaching them to Read Like Fact Checkers the Solution?
Original Research Report
British Journal of Educational Psychology
For a talk I gave in London in September 2019 on our newest research
Problems with “Checklists”
Opinion pieces on how education should respond
USAToday Cri de Coeur
Huffington Post (more than ‘critical thinking’)
Washington Post Op-Ed on California’s Media Literacy Law
I sincerely hope that some of this will be helpful to you in your deliberations.
Margaret Jacks Professor of Education &
Professor of History (by courtesy)