In this, our final column for this school year, we review the year’s key findings and recommendations for improving rational discourse in the classroom and beyond. Our democracy—civilization itself—is predicated on rational, critical, thinking and coherent discussion. The latter has delivered the ordered, liveable, society as we know it, and the erosion of these intellectual virtues is increasingly apparent—and perilous. For example, measles, a potentially fatal disease once considered to be eradicated by immunization, has returned with a vengeance, largely because of the anti-vaxxing movement. Using debunked scientific research and the power of social media to incite fear of vaccinations, anti-vaxxers are demonstrating the destructive effects of irrational discourse.

On a much larger scale, the political arena is rife with fact-free rhetoric, arguments based on personal attacks, false equivalencies and bald-faced lies. Here we revisit key resources that teachers can use to help inoculate themselves and their students in advance of the inevitable onslaught of political messaging to come via this year’s federal election. As political messages appear, have your students vet them through one or more of these approaches:

  • Truth, Spin and Propaganda“Now more than ever, propaganda analysis is an antidote to the excesses of the Information Age” – This site can be your one-stop-shop for engaging and informative exercises designed to explain the techniques used by propagandists, and how to recognize them. It discusses various propaganda techniques, provides contemporary examples of their use, and proposes strategies of mental self-defense.” Nine sections, including videos, games, examples of propaganda and strategies for fighting back, cover the material with concise, engaging, content.
  • What before WhySocial media posters often circulate ostensibly alarming “news,” angrily asking, “Why is this allowed to happen?” In far too many cases, they fail to question the truth of the “what” before they ask “why?” Fact-checking sites are the fastest, simplest, tools for determining the validity of these posts. Some sites are better regarded than others, but you can be assured that any or all of the top ten sites, as reviewed by The International Society for Technology in Education, will serve you well. Their list includes the well-known Snopes, which it claims is the go-to site to check “wild fake news claims.” Other sites, such as Allsides, focus on curating “stories from right, center and left-leaning media so that readers can easily compare how bias influences reporting on each topic.” 
  • Critical ThinkingTeaching students how to think critically should be integrated into daily lessons, discussions and exercises. The website WeAreTeachers offers ten tips, including: 1) slowing the pace by asking students to wait and think before answering a question; 2) asking “why” five times, after each answer a student gives for a question such as, “Why didn’t the class do well on the spelling test?” and, 3) “Put a new spin on bell ringers by asking a Question of the Day. Use a questioning stem (e.g., create a riddle that uses the mathematics term “multiply” in one of the clues or write a letter to a classmate recommending this book) and put it on the board. Students can write answers in their critical-thinking journals. Then have a class discussion at the end of the day.”
  • Fun with Fallacies Often we sense that what we’re reading or hearing is false, but we have trouble identifying the reason. Treat yourself and your students to a quiz with Quizlet. It serves up simple exercises on a range of fallacies: “slippery slope,” “faulty analogy,” “hasty generalization,” “begging the question,” “ad hominem,” “moral equivalence,” “scare tactic,” “non-sequitur,” “faulty causality,” “equivocation,” “either-or,” “sentimental appeal,” “bandwagon,” “false authority” and more. The interactive site provides examples of fallacies with multiple choice responses, instantly evaluated. Try the flashcards and exercises and you may find yourself hooked. They’re harder than you may think! (We ourselves got more than a few wrong. Ahem)
  • Confirmation Bias (We all have it)Of all the ills incubated on social media, likely none is as damaging as rampant confirmation bias—the tendency to seek out or focus on evidence that supports our beliefs, and to ignore or deny contrary evidence. We all have such biases, but we can overcome them by first being aware of them and learning to recognize them. Writing for the website, Teachthought, Terry Heick identifies a five-step pattern of confirmation bias: 1) Form a theory; 2) Find data that supports your opinion; 3) Find more data to confirm what you believe; 4) Select the most compelling data, memorize it, and repackage it for a better fit to your theory; 5) Continue to discount and discredit new or better data because then you’d have to reconstruct your belief system, apologize to people, admit you were wrong, etc.” He then offers a four-step pattern to counter your bias, with the general suggestion, “Constantly re-evaluate what you believe that you know, insist on the highest quality data, and embrace the possibility that we’re all wrong more frequently than we’re right.”

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