Somehow people know that The Onion is a joke. We know that Stephen Colbert is not really conservative. We know that Reno 911 is not actually a documentary about cops. But what if we didn't? If a person did not have the basic knowledge, for example, of some of the things that are really happening in the news, is it possible that person might read The Onion and believe it is news?
Yesterday I asked a group of sixth graders to evaluate three websites (I've added them to my links). They were given a checklist of criteria that a credible site would have. The kids spent about 15 minutes at each site and then explained to the class what made each site credible. This is a great activity to teach kid the parts of a website, but I wondered what would happen if the websites they evaluated were bogus. The scary thing is, they didn't notice.
I'm not kidding.
One of the sites describes an elusive tree octopus. The only objection to that information was that the kids thought teachers would be more likely to assign a report on "the regular kind of octopus." The next site reported on a study of cats' reactions to bearded men. The kids couldn't really see why they would need to know that cats are turned off by pictures of Abraham Lincoln, but they didn't question that it was true. Finally, a history of the Fisher-Price airplane. Even the name didn't give it away. The kids told me this was a great site, that they would be able to find information about the plane's engine, size, and speed - all things a teacher would surely require for a report.
When I told them the sites were bogus, most of the kids were surprised and uncomfortable. One claimed he knew it all along, but I think that was because he was embarrassed about being the one who had championed the airplane site. Did the kids not catch on because they don't have the background knowledge to know better? Perhaps they just don't know enough about octopi to rule out the possibility of a tree-dwelling version. Or is it that we aren't asking enough of these kids, intellectually? If stats about a plane's size and speed is all that's required for a report, where is the analysis? The critical thinking?
It worries me, this discovery of mine. I want to rush out and give this lesson to the entire student body before it's too late. Something has to be done!
My thanks to Kathy Schrock, a teacher who has made her lesson ideas and templates available to all teachers. These activities are really all her idea.