Reigniting Trust

Teaching Students How to Learn

Angela Kohnen is developing a curriculum to help eighth graders evaluate the torrent of information they receive online. The effort could have a major impact on how students trust material they encounter.

Ask a middle school student where they get information and the answer is predictable: Google. What may be surprising is that many students don’t know what Google really is, how it processes information and where the information actually comes from.

Angela Kohnen
Angela Kohnen

“We have a lot of conversations around the idea that Google is not just an arbiter of truth,” said Angela Kohnen, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s College of Education who studies how students interact with information sources and how schools can help. “That is a program that a human being created. That is really fun for them and opens up their eyes to the fact that this is all created by people with biases and agendas, and we just need to be more aware of how this information is getting to us and why it might be there.”

| Click here to read a Q&A with Angela Kohnen. |

That is Kohnen’s mission: to educate students on what is known as “information literacy,” the skills needed to evaluate the credibility of news and information they see online. Working under the banner of the University’s Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology, Kohnen is helping to develop a curriculum for eighth graders that teaches information literacy across subjects.
“In a lot of instances, the way young people are thinking about the information they encounter outside school is very, very different from the way they are being taught to deal with it inside the school,” she said.

Teaching ‘Information Literacy’

The concept of information literacy is not new ­­– it has been taught in schools for more than a decade. But the way it is taught is sometimes antiquated.

“Most teachers are really busy and online information literacy instruction can slip through the cracks,” Kohnen said. “A lot of times online information literacy instruction will end up being a standalone lesson instead of being integrated throughout the year. Sometimes the librarian will come in and give talk, and it is almost always done in connection with some research.

“The upshot of all this is that it tends to be seen by the student as something you do when you are doing a paper in school. It is completely divorced from the way they think about information outside of school.”

Kohnen and her colleagues are working to change that. Collaborating with the PK Yonge Developmental Research School, a university affiliate that works to design, test and implement educational innovations in kindergarten through 12th grade, they are developing an information literacy curriculum.

The curriculum targets eighth-graders and is designed to be taught across subjects, namely math, social studies and English.

“Basically, it is a year-long set of flexible lessons that can be dropped into different content areas, so they have a curricular connection,” Kohnen said. “In math, we will give them some stats literacy. So on a typical day in algebra, they would be looking at the math behind the particular graphical representation, and then we will come in and talk about the information literacy pieces that might connect.”

‘A More Fully Developed Barometer’

Kohnen says that injecting information literacy into the curriculum in middle school—and eventually expanding it through 12th grade—could have a major impact on how people process and trust information. And that, she said, might ultimately impact behavior.

“Developmentally, middle-schoolers are trying out new ideas,” she said. “They aren’t quite as firm in their positions as they will be by the time they are 18, 19, 20. Their confirmation bias levels are a little bit general and they are a little bit more open-minded, a little bit more willing to play devil’s advocate, to be contrarian, than they will be in just a few years. We hope this is a spot where we can build in awareness.”

Teaching ideas like skepticism, a commitment to accuracy, and persistence is not easy. Students are exposed to a torrent of information, much of which is questionable and some of which is deliberately misleading or flatly wrong. Meanwhile, information delivery systems like search engines and social media platforms encourage activity, meaning lots of clicks that require quick and immediate decisions.

A slower, more deliberate approach runs counter to how the system wants students to behave.

“We are working on attitudes and dispositions around information, so that they are more deliberative, more skeptical and more willing to take just that little extra step to maybe investigate the story that your friend sent you before forwarding it on or retweeting it,” she said. “I feel like a lot of this requires a ton of practice to make it happen. We are talking about information habits that are going to be counter to all of the built-ins in the system.”

The result, however, could be important changes in how the next generation of Americans interacts with the media.

“I would hope we see citizens who are a little bit slower in terms of the processing of information that is coming at them, who make more deliberative choices around what they are going to believe and not believe, who have a more fully developed barometer for trustworthiness.”