Can Numbers Be Biased?

We love statistics. Specifically, we love raw number statistics: number of students proficient or advanced, number of babies named Emma, number of hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes, and more. We also love percentage statistics: grades; batting averages in baseball, women’s pay as a percentage of men’s pay, and so on. There is a certainty to these. Statistics are made of numbers, and numbers don’t lie.

But while numbers don’t lie, it is easy to use the statistics compiled from them in a biased way. The media literate person needs to understand how statistics can be manipulated—and that’s where statistics literacy comes in. Let me offer a hypothetical example—followed by tips for educators and parents to teach students about statistics literacy in either the classroom or at home.

Hypothetical Example: I want my students to turn off all devices for one day—24 hours with no cellphone, no computer, no e-reader, no Xbox, no anything. I want them to see how addicted they are and how life can still continue without screen time. Let’s say I try this experiment with 100 students in three of my middle school classes. I toss out the idea on Monday and ask students on Tuesday how many succeeded. The answer? Only one. I spend some time Tuesday sharing some numbers with students about the average amount of screen time spent daily and the possible negative effects that may have. I repeat the challenge. On Wednesday, five students report that they turned off all devices for a day.

Bias in Selection

Let’s look at two reports using statistics from Tuesday and Wednesday:

The No Device Challenge is gaining traction. In only one day, five times as many students as the day before accepted the challenge. At this rate, in just two more days no students will have devices on.

The No Device Challenge is not gaining traction. After two days, 95% of students have failed to change their behavior.

Both reports are true. Both accurately report the numbers, and the statistics are correct. Yet they lead to opposite conclusions about how the project is going. The reporters selected different numbers to analyze. If you are biased in favor of this project, you will likely use the first report. If you are biased against this project, you will likely use the second.

Sneaking in Biased Words

Beware of descriptive adjectives added to statistical reports. Numbers are embedded in sentences and paragraphs, and the words used to introduce the numbers suggest bias:

The No Device Challenge is gaining traction. In only one day, an impressive five times as many students as the day before accepted the challenge.

The No Device Challenge is not gaining traction. After two days, a disappointing 95% of students have failed to change their behavior.

It is extremely common to see opinions such as these slipped into statistical reporting. Just one or two words can totally influence the way you read the numbers. Did the number of students surge up to five, or did the number of students barely budge from Day 1?

Bias in Graphs

Graphs are used in biased ways, too. Here’s a graph that makes the No Device project look great:

But if you change the graph to include all of the students, the project is going nowhere:

Again, both charts are accurate. They use the same numbers, but somehow, they leave different impressions. Changing the scale is a very common way to make the mundane seem dramatic.

Selecting only a piece of a graph can change the impression, too. I made up these numbers, but let’s say this is a graph of students who need free lunches. This looks scary, right? Our community is falling apart!

How about looking at the entire graph?

The numbers didn’t change, but somehow the community doesn’t look as bad, does it? It looks like lots of progress has been made.

Bias in Percentages

There was a 200% increase in snow days last year in my district. If I had said, “Last year we had one snow day and this year we had two,” you wouldn’t have been impressed, but it is another way of describing what happened. What if I said that last year, about 1% of the days during the school year were snow days? Again, it comes down to which numbers you select to compare. Do you want to be dramatic and shock readers? Make a percentage with one snow day and two snow days. 200%! Do you want to keep things calm? Make a percentage with two snow days and 185 days in the school calendar. 1%. Both are true. Both are biased.

The Bottom Line: Statistics don’t lie. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be manipulated. The perceived certainty of numbers can make us less critical than we need to be when reading the barrage of figures that come our way daily.

Tips for Teachers

  • Make sure students know that it is possible to be biased and true. Reporters don’t have to lie about the numbers; they just choose the ones they want to use.
  • Have students look for adjectives that describe the numbers. We read “a shocking 15% increase” differently than “a modest 15% increase.” Bias shows up in those adjectives.
  • Encourage students to look for the bigger picture. In an era where the dramatic is used to attract eyeballs, perspective is lost. “One million people may be in trouble!” Is one million a big number? There are 7.7 billion people on the planet, so one million is way less than 1% of the population: about one one-hundredth of 1% (0.01%).
  • Have students look for different ways to put numbers together. For example, in my No Device activity, there was a 500% increase (from 1 to 5), there was five-fold increase (from 1 to 5), there was an increase of four percentage points (from 1% of the students to 5% of the students), there was a 95% failure rate, there were 19 times as many students failing as succeeding (95 divided by 5), and so on. Have them discuss how the different versions suggest different meanings.
  • Tell students to analyze all graphs. Is this the right scale to use? Is this a representative selection? What other graphs could be made with the same numbers?

***

Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author of the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was also a guest on HMH’s Learning Moments podcast, Shaping the Future: Future Skills for Fact-Checking Online Fakes.

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Student Voice! You don’t have it if you don’t speak well.

voice

  1. The sound produced in a person’s larynx and uttered through the mouth, as speech or song. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/voice

Student voice. What a hot topic! Educational conferences have themes such as “Raising Student Voice” (NCTE) and “Speak Up! Finding and Using Our Voices in a Noisy World” (NEATE). Social media is full of posts about how to increase student voice. Educational publications have articles about student voice. A true buzz word of our time! Unfortunately, every single one of the mentions of student voice ignores the first and most important meaning of voice: speaking. The conference with the theme “Speak Up”? Not one strand about oral communication. The “Raising Student Voice” conference had hundreds of sessions with exactly ONE session about how to improve students’ oral communication. Think about that. It is an example of an epic fail.

When you see the word voice used by educators, it might mean choice or options as in “give students voice instead of directing their learning.” Sometimes it means opinion as in “we need to value student voice and make them feel comfortable expressing their ideas.” Sometimes it means literary style as in “Hemingway has a unique voice in his writing, and we want students to develop their voice as well.” I’m not arguing with any of those: I think we should give students choices, we should value their opinions, and we should let them have their own style. But we should also give them the gift of being able to verbalize well because when you see the word voice used by everyone else on the planet, it means what you hear.

How can so many people talk about giving students voice without thinking about oral communication? That’s the original and most important voice! How do we declare what we want? How do we express our opinions? Overwhelmingly by speaking. We say things out loud. Often, that speaking is face-to-face, but increasingly digital media is used which expands the reach and importance of verbal communication. Tragically, students don’t speak well. You’ve noticed.

Remember how amazed people were when students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke? You heard many comments about how well they communicated, and some conspiracy types thought they must be paid actors because normal kids just don’t speak that well. Two important points: one, we were impressed because good speaking is not the norm for students and two, the way they captured America’s attention was by speaking. As much as we value writing, speaking is by far the number one way to have an impact.

“All kids can talk already.” “Speaking is not on the Big Test.” “I have never been trained about how to teach speaking skills.” “I have activities where I make students speak so I have this covered.”

All of these are good excuses for ignoring the direct instruction needed to give students real voice. But the truth is, it isn’t that hard to teach students how to speak well. Just as there are specific lessons to improve writing (punctuation, capitalization, word choice, sentence structure…) and to improve math (common denominator, order of operations…) and to improve reading (setting, metaphor, plot line…) there need to be specific lessons to improve speaking.

I’ll give you one example. The biggest weakness of almost all speakers is that their talks are dull. They speak in a lifeless way. You know that it is difficult to listen to the end of any student podcast. Lesson one: to demonstrate the importance of adding life to their voices, let students practice with phrases where the meaning can change depending on how it is said.

I don’t think you are dumb. (But everyone else does?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You know I am?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You think he is?)

Lesson two: Play this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ouic59Gv0x0 There is a visual of a voice with no life and a voice with life as well as an audio modeling the difference.

Lesson three: Give a small practice speech where adding life makes a huge difference. Have different students speak encouraging each one to add lots of feeling.

One time, we had a squirrel in our house. When we opened the door to let our dog out, it ran right in. Everything got crazy! The squirrel was running all over! My mom was yelling, “Do something! Do something! Get that thing out of here.” My sister jumped on a chair and stood there crying her eyes out. My dad was chasing the squirrel with a broom from room to room.  “Open all the doors!” he yelled to me. “I did already!” I yelled back. Finally, it ran out. After a minute or so, my dad started laughing. “That was interesting,” he said with a chuckle.

All three of those combined might take 40 minutes of instructional time, and every student will learn one of the keys to effective speaking. Will all students master this? Of course not, just as not all master the skills of writing or math or drawing or anything. But all will get better, and all will understand how to communicate better. Many more resources are here: https://pvlegs.wordpress.com/2018/06/10/shortchanging-speaking/

Bottom line: do not ignore the most common and most important definition of voice. If you really want students to have voice, give them the gift of being well spoken. Visit www.pvlegs.com

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Does Remote Learning Work (Part One)

Have you seen enough yet? It doesn’t work, does it?

Every parent knows that online learning does not work. There is no meaningful instruction as a result of screen time at home. (Verification from the N.Y. Times here.) This is especially true if students are young and/or if there are multiple kids at home. Parents now know how important and special teachers are. Respect for schools and teachers is soaring.

The rest of us also know now that online learning does not work. At first, we said, “Teachers just don’t know how to do it yet.” True. Actually, some teachers didn’t even try. A teacher at my grandson’s school has a 15-miute Zoom meeting every day:”Hi, kids. How you doing? Anyone do anything fun yesterday? OK, well here’s a link to Khan Academy on simplifying fractions. Send me five problems if you want. And write a story about which super hero you’d like to be. There aren’t any grades and I won’t give feedback or anything but if you want, send it to me.”

Some tried a little harder and posted PowerPoint slides. This is for 4th graders. They’ve never heard about financial literacy so the whole unit is here:

What 10-year old wouldn’t enjoy this? And it’s especially friendly for special ed students, right?

Lots of teachers are trying more sophisticated things but lack expertise with digital tools. Managing a class via Zoom and looking at 15 thumbnail pictures and trying to monitor feedback? Making a video and posting it to YouTube? Trying to Screencastify? Daunting. And if you can do that, there is another problem: it is difficult to be impressive on screen, especially small screens. There is a reason why actors are highly paid. Even teachers using tools well may find that the product is still pretty unwatchable. Now imagine being 8 years old and having to watch hours of weak videos.

Yes, there are a few rock stars. Some teachers get to showcase their skills with media. Even so, they fail to achieve what needs to be achieved. Kids need personal connection. You don’t remember wonderful lessons, you remember wonderful teachers. You remember classmates and interpersonal contact. We are learning that screen time done well is still painfully short of adequate. And did we mention no choir, no band, no art, no PE, no clubs, no after-school activities? What about all of the emotional problems associated with being out of those activities, away from friends, and the general trauma of the situation? The absolute best online efforts can’t make up for those. (See a high school teacher’s thoughts about that here.)

You noticed I said “looking at 15 thumbnails.” Who has only 15 students? No one, but that is probably the best you can hope for in a class of 30. If half show up, you’d be happy, right? The other students may not have the tools needed to connect. Some may have competition, a sibling who needs to use the computer. The best online instruction is worthless if it can’t be accessed.

So we have all agreed to throw out grades, scale back on amounts of assignments, and so on. In other words, we have all agreed that this isn’t workable. We cannot come remotely close (pun intended) to giving students the experience and education they get from being in school. Remember that students are paying this enormous price even though they are not the victims of the virus. While no one knows exactly what the effect is, we believe that fewer adults will get the virus if children suffer. We will have to ask some tough questions to decide if this is worth it. But we do know some things for sure: online instruction is not workable and remote learning is an extremely poor substitute for school.

I’m not saying to quit trying. I’m not saying to stop doing everything you can to help kids. I’m saying recognize how important you are in the classroom. I’m saying change the language: there is no remote learning just remote assigning; it isn’t online instruction but rather online tasks. And recognize that all those who said schools will be unnecessary that the future lies in independent, digital learning were way off.

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Does remote learning work? (Part Two)

So here we are in crisis. Schools are closed for an indefinite time. The key is to move your instruction online. Young students will access the materials we put online and will learn effectively. They will watch the instructional videos we send them to, and they will watch over and over until they understand. They will complete the assignments we post. They will watch and listen to their classmates’ little pictures at Zoom. But will they?

I was listening to an all-comedy radio channel. One comic talked about digging through his closet and looking at all the junk discarded in there. One of the items was his Rosetta Stone “Learn Spanish” CD set. I spent a couple of minutes researching “what percentage complete Rosetta Stone” but couldn’t find the answer right away so I quit looking. I bet it is a very small number. Then I started thinking about my health club. In a normal year, it gets crowded during January and part of February, but it gets back to normal after that. Seems many people have the idea that this will be the year they start exercising but almost none of them follow through. Then I saw a New York Times article that said that 90% of people who lose weight gain it all back. Seems like most folks have the intention to change but don’t follow through. You can see where I am going with this. One of the outstanding traits of human beings seems to be that we don’t follow through. And in times of crisis? Minds are even less able to focus.

This truth applies in the world of education, too. Studies of online courses reveal that only ten percent of people who start actually finish. Rosetta Stone could have told you that but they won’t, of course. Disciplined behavior is rare, and especially rare when we are all freaked out. Now add that your lessons all compete with all the other distractions at home: other siblings, working parents, poor connectivity, other screens to click on, and so on. And add to that lack of maturity: a seven year old kid sitting still in front of thirty thumbnail pictures of classmates? Absurd. There is no theoretically possible world where remote learning can come close to duplicating what happens in class. We can kid ourselves for a while, but being out of school does enormous damage to learning. As they say in the world of contests, must be present to win.

Don’t get me wrong. I encourage all of us to provide whatever we can for students using whatever tools we have and they have. This disruption will not end soon. But be realistic about what students can and will do.

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Don’t hit record yet!

Fourth graders are learning about the Reconstruction. The teacher wants to test out his new green screen tools. She has students speak and posts the video on YouTube. A huge problem: she is so focused on the tech tool that she fails to notice that the students do not know how to speak well. Check out what she posted for the world to see (I removed his identifying information because posting a rough draft is not kind to students): 4th graders Do you really believe that that is the best these kids can do?

A high school teacher has his class interested in school reform. He has the students generate ideas about how to improve schools. He created a video and put it on YouTube. The intention is great; the message may be provocative and needed; and the students use appropriate digital tools available to create a message for a real audience.  One huge problem: no one taught the students how to speak well. Watch the students in the YouTube video he posted.  Again, I took clips of the students from the video and took out all identifying information. Another teacher has students record podcasts about historical events. I love the idea. Podcasts showcase oral communication for a real audience. But you need to have something worth showcasing. Do you want to listen to all of this podcast: https://youtu.be/Ouic59Gv0x0 ? Giving students many chances to make podcasts will not solve the problem. Without specific instruction, they will just make more un-listenable recordings.

I feel bad about criticizing these students, but the truth is that not one of them is close to impressive. I apologize for being rough but you know it is true. This is tragic. Here is the part that is hard to hear: it is our fault as teachers that students have such poor speaking skills.

I guarantee you that each of these students has spoken often in the years of schooling they have had. Many talks were informal: answering and asking questions, solving problems at the board, commenting in discussions, and such. Many were formal. How many book reports do you suppose a child has given? How many research reports presented? How many poetry recitations? How many lab results explained? How many times explaining a travel brochure on the Central American country they were assigned? Would you guess that at least ten times, each child had to get up in front of a class at some point and speak for 3 to 5 minutes? Would you believe twenty times? More? In other words, it isn’t that they have never done this. It is that no one ever taught them to do it well. And you know that while you have lessons and worksheets on capital letters, for example, you never had a lesson or practice phrases to help students understand descriptive hand gestures. Lessons on topic sentences? Common. Lessons on adjusting speed for effect? Extremely uncommon.

Here is the reality: speaking well matters in life. No matter what profession someone enters, the person who speaks well will be more successful than the person who speaks less well. As 21st century communication tools put oral communication on display, verbal skills are critical. Podcasts, Skype (now being used by employers for intake interviews), videos (like the one I am critiquing here), digital stories, and video conferences demand strong oral communication skill. Look at skills employers want.

Verbal communication is at the top of the list of skills most desired for prospective employees. Which of those speakers do you think would impress the HR committee?

Some kids get pretty good on their own. In my experience, about 10% of students speak pretty well. But if only 10% of your students pass your test, I am going to blame you.  You didn’t teach well. So I have to suggest that teachers have failed these students. (This will no doubt be a very unpopular blog: criticizing well-meaning kids and blaming teachers?)  We have a great excuse: we have been focused on big tests and have been forced to ignore the most important language art. But with the communication tools available today, that omission is becoming more serious.

One more video. These fourth graders were given specific instruction about how to speak well in the weeks leading up to the book reports. Watch them here. You notice the difference right away, don’t you?  You, too, can give students help. If you use digital communication tools in your class, this enhanced e-book explains how create effective podcasts and videos. It’s full of tutorials, audio and video examples of students, lessons, and rubrics. I’ll send it to you for free. Contact me at www.pvlegs.com.

Look here for a book that explains generally how to teach students to build a powerful message and how to deliver that message well.

I believe in these kids. I know that each one of them is capable of impressing us given proper instruction. I know that we have accepted too little for too long. Don’t hit record until you teach them to be well spoken.

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Blame the messenger–Why Online Instruction Fails

You’ve heard the phrase before. Someone brings you some bad news, and, as you begin to get upset, he says, “Hey, don’t blame the messenger!” In a school I worked at, our team leader said it often. He went to all the meetings and came back with reports of all the new things we had to do: new initiatives we had to implement, new tech tools the school purchased that we were supposed to put into play, new [math/science/bullyproofing/grammar/insert your own idea] program we had to use. As we got agitated and began to complain, he always used the phrase on us. It certainly seemed fair. Why vent at him when it was the new things we hated? Don’t blame the messenger.

Lately, I have come to think differently. There are cases where we should blame the messenger. Now that all of us are online presenters it is more apparent than ever that weak speaking dooms our attempts at instruction. No one wants to listen to hours of mediocre to poor oral communication. Add all the other options available online and we can’t be surprised that students are tuning out. You wouldn’t watch this stuff either.

Let me give an example of how poor oral communication can ruin good intentions. I attended a talk about making more effective use of technology in instruction. I think the message is an important one. Many teachers were putting their students in the position of being time travelers: the students are in 2020 outside of school, but when they come into the classroom, it looks like 1980. Few teachers have expertise in the effectively using digital tools, and many were hesitant or resistant. We can kid ourselves, but change is difficult, and teachers are generally buried. Planning, grading, parent meetings, school meetings, and shifting requirements are all-consuming. The tech teacher may have the time and interest to explore all the new tools, but the average teacher doesn’t, so someone has to be the messenger to bring the new information to the teachers. And that messenger had better be good. Think of how much better prepared we would be for remote learning now if we had had better presentations about it then.

Which brings me back to the talk. What was really needed there was a high-powered communicator with excellent oral communication skills. First, the speaker had to make sure the presentation was well built. To start, it should have been created for the audience: teachers giving up their time and paying for a couple days of sessions who are not really looking for complicated jargon or some glitzy new tool. I was stunned that the presenter seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking. The speaker should have well designed visual aids that engage the audience, but instead we saw the typical PowerPoint slides with bullet points and a massive list of “apps you must have.” Who wants to see that?  The speaker should have content that is understandable, but instead we were buried with a quick explanation of the 25 tools we should be using. Way too much, way too fast, way inappropriate for those who aren’t tech savvy. Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed. It was poorly constructed. (Check out a collection of bad slides to use as examples of what NOT to do.) How well built is the online instruction that you  are seeing out there today?

Of course, after a presentation is created, it has to be delivered. Speakers presenting new ideas need to be really good. Selling change requires exceptional skills. A speaker has to be lively, engaging, animated, powerful, and maybe humorous. These are necessary to sell any new idea. Unfortunately, the speaker was none of those. Most attendees left the session before it was over. Blame the messenger. He ruined the presentation and poisoned the idea of using valuable tech tools. Too bad. We could have used an inspirational message to get us psyched to use the tools we now need to use for remote learning. And when we move from live to online, speakers have to be much much more lively to be engaging. Online speaking is a performance art. Talking at kids doesn’t work. How impressive is the speaking on the videos and screencasts you’ve seen created?

Everyone can benefit by improving their speaking skills. We are the messengers. How many great ideas in your school died because they were presented poorly?  How many teachers got upset because an administrator communicated poorly?  How many times have you looked around at a staff meeting and seen glazed eyes and clear disinterest? How many good lessons have been ignored because no one wanted to continue to listen? If these have happened, blame the messenger. Or better yet, get help. Check out Own Any Occasion. (Find it here)

See also Don’t Hit Record Yet.

 

 

 

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What the Oscars can tell us about speaking

Are you going to an Oscar party this year?

At the last one I attended, as we came into the party, we were given an Oscar “ballot.”  Each of us marked off our predicted winner for each of the many awards to be given.  While this could be used as a wagering tool, we simply used it to help sustain interest during the long show.  “Yes!  Best black-and-white short documentary in a foreign language!  I have five points now!”  As I marked my ballot, I noticed that there are many awards for acting and many for writing.  This is not a particularly astute observation.  I am sure you noticed this as well.  What may have escaped your notice is how profoundly this distinction should impact the way we understand and teach speaking.

Someone creates the words.  Someone delivers the words.  These are two distinct talents.  The writer is probably not a great performer.  The performer is not likely to be a great writer.  But all speaking involves these two very different parts.  Whether we are speaking one-on-one, in a small group, or to a large audience, both parts are involved.  And for all us regular folks, we have to master both parts by ourselves.

Understanding the distinction between creating and delivering is the first step in becoming effective teachers of oral communication.  I refer to these two parts as building a speech and performing a speech.   “Building” refers to everything we do before we open our mouths; “performing” refers to everything we do as we are speaking. 

Let’s think about building a speech first.  Sometimes the process is instantaneous—coming up with what to yell at the umpire after a bad call.  Sometimes we work hard to construct our comments—deciding what to say at the eulogy.  But before we speak, we do certain things.  If we are to be effective, we think about the audience and design our talk specifically for them; we come up with content; we organize our words; we may design some aids for the talk; and we adjust our appearance to fit the situation.  Again, we do this for all verbal communication, whether our audience is one person (interview), a few people (discussion), or many people (presentation), but we often do these things without giving them all as much thought as we should.  Some people are very good at building speeches (professional speechwriters exist, right?) and some students will excel at this part of oral communication.  All students, though, and indeed, all speakers, need to understand what is required before we ever utter a word.

Of course it makes no difference how well remarks are constructed if they are never spoken.  I prefer to use the word performance rather than the word delivery because I think the former does a better job of conveying what is really involved.  In any event, as we speak, we need to do certain things.  We need to be poised; we need voices that make it possible for every word to be heard; we need some life in our voices to avoid being dull and boring; we need to make eye contact with audience members; we need to gesture; and we need to pay attention to speed and pacing.   If we do those things, we will be effective conveying the message no matter what the situation is—interview, discussion, or presentation.  Some people are very good at performing (professional speakers exist, right?) and some students excel at this part of oral communication.  But, again, all students need to understand what is required as they speak.

I realize that there are many ways to describe the skills I refer to here.  We have buried our students with an impressive number of descriptors: content, subject knowledge, information, appropriate facts, the 5 Ws, clear message, articulation, enunciation, elocution, speak clearly, intonation, expression, inflection, enthusiasm, and so on.  I will make an argument for consistency and simplicity another day.  Whatever language you use, clearly separate the words that describe what we do before we speak from the words that describe what we do as we speak.

I sometimes get a “Well, duh” reaction when I explain this, as if everyone already knows this.  At some intuitive level, I think we all do know this but look around your building.  How many teachers specifically talk to students about this crucial distinction?  How many score sheets and rubrics are being used in your building that don’t keep these separate (e.g., “Content, vocabulary, and delivery are appropriate”)?  How many students can articulate, “Well, I’m pretty good at constructing a talk but not so good at giving it” or vice versa?  If we all know this, why do I see so little evidence of it?

The distinction between building a speech and performing a speech is profound, and understanding that distinction will make a profound difference in the way students and teachers approach all oral communication.  It is the starting place for mastering speaking. Visit pvlegs.com.

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The Real Problem with Fake News

At every press event, Donald Trump criticizes the media and/or specific people/networks. Initially, he picked on the New York Times and CNN. Now, in the President’s mind, not only are almost all news sources fake, they are enemies of the American people. This has been a constant theme of his presidency.

Screen Shot 2020-01-24 at 8.28.57 AM

Why these attacks?

A.   The President wants to protect you from being duped. The President wants to make your life easier by steering you away from evil liars.

B.    The President wants to protect himself from any possible examination or criticism. The President wants to discredit news sources so that, in case a source finds something he doesn’t want you to know about, you won’t believe the story.

The option you choose may be based on your opinion of the President (see my post about confirmation bias and fake news here.) I would love to believe that A is the correct choice. I fear that B is.

MISUSING THE DEFINITION OF “FAKE”

Fake means false. Didn’t happen. Reporting that a poll that says 32% of the people trust the media, is not fake if in fact such a poll existed. That some other poll might have different percentages does not mean that the first story was fake. CNN, ABC, NBC accurately reported the polls in the election. That the election turned out differently does not mean the stories were made up.

Not covering a story is not the same as lying. If in fact there were big crowds, the story may have been ignored and that may be evidence of bias, BUT BIASED DOES NOT MEAN FALSE. There is a huge difference between choosing one story over another and reporting something that never happened. Stifling the press because you don’t like what they report is part of what is sinister. There is a larger fear.

THE PROBLEM IS DIFFERENT THAN YOU THINK

Our first response as educators was to teach students how to sniff out fake news. We pointed out that some stories were totally false. Made up. Never happened. No truth. We wanted to give kids tools for figuring out which stories were fabricated. But teaching students how to find lies is the smaller of the two problems with “fake news.” I am worried that students will believe something that is false. I am terrified that students will not believe something that is true. As we emphasize that some small amount of stuff that is encountered is nonsense, we seriously risk creating cynics who believe nothing is true. One of the most important pieces of civil society is being undermined.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PRESS

A little history. Within minutes of creating a new country, our Founding Fathers decided to make ten changes to the Constitution. The very first change they proposed?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 1 protects freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Founders were worried that these freedoms, not specifically mentioned in the articles setting up the government, could be attacked. Before anything else, they wanted to guarantee these freedoms.

…the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. James Madison

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. Thomas Jefferson

The Founding Fathers realized that a free and respected press would help hold government leaders accountable, publicize important issues, and educate citizens so they can make informed decisions. Attacking the press, then, is a very dicey proposition. If the press is demeaned, those three things don’t happen. Who will perform those functions? This is not a liberal or a conservative issue. Both ideologies agree that a free press is critical to a well-functioning democracy.

Yet if our right to a free and independent press is infringed, all other rights fall. Our ability to be informed and the free flow of information, regardless of how damaging it is to elected officials, is one of the most essential safeguards to our liberty. The fight for a free press is one that we absolutely cannot afford to lose. http://www.freedomworks.org/content/flashback-founders-necessity-free-press

The press, which is essential to the preservation of liberty, has also come under attack from the government. One of the principles that ensures a free press is that journalists are not required to reveal their sources. This is one way government whistleblowers can feel free to come forward and reveal information that is of public importance, such as governmental corruption and abuse, without fearing exposure. If journalists were required to reveal their sources, scandals involving government corruption and wrongdoing such as Watergate might never be brought to the attention of the media and, thus, the American people. https://www.rutherford.org/constitutional_corner/amendment_i_freedom_of_religion_speech_press_and_assembly

I am terrified of the President’s claim that all mainstream news sources are enemies of the people. When Trump supporters shouted “luegenpresse” at a rally, it was very disturbing. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/10/24/the-ugly-history-of-luegenpresse-a-nazi-slur-shouted-at-a-trump-rally/?utm_term=.761f5329fa1a For a sitting president to echo those sentiments is shocking.

DESTROYING FAITH IN A CRITICAL INSTITUTION

The non-stop barrage is having an effect. Distrust in the media is increasing. From Gallup analyst Art Swift:

Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/296003-poll-trust-in-media-at-all-time-low

The numbers are radically different based on party affiliation: 14% of Republicans, 30% of independents, and 51% of Democrats trust the media. According to an Emerson College poll, 91% of Republicans think the news media is untruthful (47% of independents, 31% of Democrats). http://thehill.com/homenews/media/318514-trump-admin-seen-as-more-truthful-than-news-media-poll

The President’s strategy is working.

EDUCATORS MUST RESPOND

It is not enough, then, to teach students how to ferret out falsehoods. It is critical, yes, but more is needed. We must set the context. We must explain the importance of a free press. We must explain the core principles of our Founding Fathers. We must point out how rulers around the world and throughout history have attacked the press in order to subjugate the citizenry. We must make clear that a free press is never the enemy of the people. And I fear, we must make clear that the President is frighteningly wrong.

 

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Fake Quotes: A lesson in how easily we can be duped

We all see the news: trolls are posting fake stories. We all think, “That’s terrible!” We worry that our students will be duped. Why do these falsehoods spread? Why do fake posts work? The answer to that can be found by taking a look at a very common practice on social media, posting/liking/retweeting nicely decorated quotes from famous people. You’ve seen this quote:

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.  Albert Einstein

Einstein never said any such thing. There are hundreds of nicely decorated versions of this available with a simple web search and even some classroom posters. All lies.

On Twitter I saw:

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.  Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin never said that. Total falsehood.

Here are four fun ones:

Which version is correct? None of them. They are all lies.

This drives me crazy. Intelligent people. Educators. Folks with degrees. All of these people get upset when they hear that Facebook is being used by troll farms putting out falsehoods that end up being widely shared, yet they are guilty of forwarding falsehoods themselves.

I think I know how these fakes get created. Someone somewhere thought, “These are nice words, but no one will read them unless I say a famous person said them. How about Steve Jobs? Ben Franklin? Wait, no! This has the word ‘genius’ in it, and when I hear the word genius, I think of Einstein! I’ll say that Einstein said it!” And I understand why re-posting and retweeting happen: the post includes some nice sentiments or an inspirational message, and we want to share them. We end up spreading lies.

Don’t be so harsh, right? The message was super nice so don’t be picky. So Franklin or Roosevelt didn’t say it. Big deal. The point is that the words are inspiring! With that kind of thinking, you can see how troll farms succeed. Put out a message people like, and it will be shared whether true or false. Maybe the post includes something Donald Trump never said or Joe Biden never said, but so what? I like the post! It reinforces what I already believe so I’ll re-post it. Be aware that it is very easy to create attractive but fake messages. Rather than take non-famous words and attribute them to famous people, I used Canva (https://www.canva.com/) to create a poster taking famous words and attributing them to me. The message is wonderful, right? Feel free to share it!

We need to model the behavior we want our students to emulate. We can’t mindlessly accept and perpetuate what we like online. Be suspicious. Think critically. Sometimes the red flags are obvious.

Sometimes it is trickier to detect fakes. You have to know about Ben Franklin’s writing to know the words above are not his style. You have to think that while the world thinks Einstein is a genius, he didn’t hold himself out to be a genius or a commentator on genius. Verify. Use Snopes, a fact-checking site (https://www.snopes.com/). Use Google. On the search line I typed, “Did Einstein ever say everyone is a genius” and got many results verifying that he didn’t including this one: https://www.history.com/news/here-are-6-things-albert-einstein-never-said.

This is all effortful, but necessary. Make it part of your behavior to think critically and never mindlessly accept or repost anything. Then share your skill with your students. To stop the spread of falsehoods online, we need to cure ourselves first. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

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Shortchanging Speaking

A student turns in this paper:

many people think that we should not have ginetticly modifyed foods we could be having health problems in the future if we eat them, Some studys say that they cause cancer. we should pass laws to stop this.

What do you do?

Options:

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids write.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic writing, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve the writing.

Most of us will choose option C. We won’t do everything at once. We might teach a lesson about capitalization and give practice with capitalizing the first word of a sentence. We might then teach a lesson about “changing the y to i” before adding an ending and give some practice activities. We might reteach sentence structure with lessons about run-ons and then give some practice activities to help students identify run-ons.

A student turns in this work:

1/4 + 1/5  =  2/9    and   2/3 + 2/7 = 4/10

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids do math.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic work, and I don’t want to devalue student work.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve adding fractions with unlike denominators.

Most of us will choose option C again. We will teach finding common multiples and give students lots of practice activities.

One more example. A student turns in this talk: Composting

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids speak.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic speaking, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve speaking.

In my experience, most teachers choose option A. In the case of this recording, the teacher posted it to YouTube for the world to hear even though it is clearly “rough draft” speaking. (I’m guessing it was so poor that you didn’t even listen to the entire one and half minutes.) I have had a few teachers choose option B, claiming that they don’t teach speaking because they value “authentic” speech, as if a child cannot be both well-spoken and authentic. I have found almost no teachers who teach specific lessons with guided practice about speaking skills.

In this case, I would teach a lesson about Life, adding passion/feeling/emotion to make the talk more interesting, and I would offer practice with little phrases and little speeches so students can develop life. Then I would teach some lessons about Speed, adjusting pace to make a talk more interesting and effective. I would offer practice with some little speeches so students can learn to adjust speed well. See some ideas here: http://pvlegs.com/activities/. Do you see those kinds of lessons and practice activities in your school?

We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. How could the teacher that put this up on YouTube (with identifying information that I removed!) not have noticed that the kids in front of the green screen need help with basic speaking skills? https://youtu.be/KmnoAxptUsA How could he/she have thought that this was the best kids can do? Shame on you for selling these kids short and posting a video for the world to see that fails to show how well they are capable of speaking. Unfortunately, many teachers fail to pay attention to poor speaking, fail to give needed lessons, and fail to give teaching oral communication the instruction time it deserves. Many teachers watch students speaking like this and do nothing to help them. We make kids talk after the poetry unit and ignore the fact that most of the recitations are quiet poor. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) We have students do their biography/country presentations and ignore the facts that most listeners were not particularly engaged and two days later would be able to tell you almost nothing about the reports they heard. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) If you listen with new ears, it will be painfully obvious that we have shortchanged our students and failed to give them needed instruction about how to speak well.

Solutions? Speaking skills are an afterthought in most materials out there. There are few materials that specifically show teachers how to help students master oral communication. But there are some:

A book focused exclusively on teaching all students to speak well: goo.gl/dgoSS7

An online course: http://shop.ascd.org/Default.aspx?TabID=55&ProductId=172581907

A one-hour video: http://www.ascd.org/professional-development/videos/listen-up-speaking-matters-dvd.aspx

A book focused exclusively on explaining listening and speaking standards with lesson ideas and activities: goo.gl/4iJh1G 

An article about teaching speaking: goo.gl/engkOt

A website devoted to showing how to teach speaking: pvlegs.com

A short video with animated words about how to teach speaking: goo.gl/ven2jp

It is time to quit shortchanging our students. We have expected too little and have failed to give them needed help. Let’s help them with speaking the way we help them with writing, with math, and with all other subjects. They deserve a chance to be well-spoken.

 

 

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