Four tips on how to teach fact-checking in high school

June 21, 2019

Disinformation is something that affects millions of people all around the world, and every time it’s easier to spot the harm that it causes. Due to the large-scale spread of the phenomenon and its troublesome effect on youth in recent years, high schools and other educational institutions have begun inviting fact-checkers to their campuses to give workshops or presentations about their methodology.

At Chequeado, our education team set out to conduct a global diagnostic. We conducted research in early 2019 to try to map out organizations from different fields that are teaching literacy in media, data, fact-checking, information and disinformation around the world. The team studied their research, projects, programs, activities and academic resources.  

The results of this investigation were eye-opening: We discovered more than 200 pieces of content created by about 100 organizations that we organized into categories and shared. I had the opportunity of presenting these findings with community members of the International Fact-Checking Network who are involved with educational work at Global Fact 6 in Cape Town, South Africa.  

It’s truly encouraging to see how fact-checkers have recently begun designing and developing educational programs. One year ago, during Global Fact 5 in Rome, Italy, there were only a handful of educational initiatives geared towards adolescents. Now, there are more than 15 educational initiatives by fact-checkers being run in local high schools all throughout the globe.

Nonetheless, there is still much work to be done. The majority of these projects are very new, not easy to replicate and run by journalists with very little to no experience in secondary schooling. For this reason, I’d like to share some advice that the educational team at Chequeado has learned over the last five years through our programming.

Telling isn’t teaching

When we set out to teach our methodology, the first thing we tend to do is explain our own work. Before Chequeado formally developed its Education Program, the editorial team would lead workshops in which they’d simply tell students how they conducted fact-checking in the hopes that this would teach them to do the same. But simply listening to our experiences isn’t enough; we know that it’s better when activities put forward engaging narratives that involve the students.

Renowned educational reformer John Dewey believed in learning by doing. He wrote that creating “pedagogical analogies” in which we train for certain skillsets that are more relevant to student activities can bring in better results.

For example, if we want to teach students how to “think methodologically,” we can engage them with activities that directly activate their research and thinking skills. Here’s one example of how workshop leaders can do this:

  1. Show the students a communication device made with two plastic cups connected by a thread tied to each of their bases.
  2. Offer the students different explanations for why the sound is able to travel from side to side, and discuss the various theories with them.
  3. Prompt them to pick one of the theories and see if they can test it, designing their own experiments to run on the device to try and definitively confirm or deny anything.

Don’t teach fact-checking, teach skills

Part of our human essence drives us to replicate ourselves. Many journalists share this tendency; they want to create more journalists. If we want to help strengthen citizens that can better exercise their critical thinking and participate in the public debate, we should teach skills that allow them to do so, not just one specialty like fact-checking, or one verification tool.

Teaching fact-checking can be didactically effective (or not) depending on how motivated and incentivized the students are, not just the teachers. That’s why it’s crucial to think about what skills we want to teach, and then build an experience, activity or project around this goal. The tools and strategies we use now will become obsolete when technology and the world of disinformation inevitably changes. If we focus our energies on developing skills, students will be able to adapt their knowledge effectively in a constantly evolving digital world.

There are different schemas for deciding which skills to teach. At Cheqeuado, we adopt two skillsets from the “Partnership for 21st Century Learning,” an American nonprofit that offers guides and resources online for educators. Using these, we put together our own framework construct our own framework and organize them into three principles.

Revise your curriculum/programming

Fact-checkers pride themselves in the way they back their articles with hard evidence, something that shouldn’t be forgotten when they transform themselves into educators. Is your curriculum, activity or initiative truly teaching the skill you set out to teach? What feedback are you going to need to be able to answer that question? Check the effectiveness of your pedagogical programming with the same professional rigor you use to write your articles. If you turn to the academic community to help answer this question, you’ll surely find methodologies and researchers that could be of great help.

Share what you do with this community

There are many people and organizations working on the same problem, as academics, educators, fact-checkers, neuroscientists, psychologists and other communicators. But since each one pertains to a different field, there’s little collaboration. We use different terms to refer to the same thing, look at the same problem through different lenses, and we all have different priorities. If we start to overcome our differences and recognize our potential as an educational ecosystem, we’ll be able to enrich our work in the future.

These pieces of advice are the result of our accomplishments and failures from carrying out projects like Chequeado+, in which we taught thousands of adolescent students skills to participate in public debate. They also surge from joint research we’ve conducted with academics and neuroscientists, and can be helpful to those who are interested in embarking on the wonderful world of teaching youth.

There are excellent examples within the community of the IFCN of innovative proposals focused on high schools, like the work of Factcheck.it or the projects that Africa Check is beginning to develop. In the last year, a lot has been added to this new educational community. I can’t wait to see where we find ourselves at next year’s Global Fact 7, to be held in Oslo, Norway.