Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bias Literacy: Pick the Low-Lying Fruit

We all grow up in a world of bias. It's so much a part of our everyday experience that it's easy to overlook. The troublesome thing is not to recognize or discern it. The disturbing thing, as some have observed, is that the digital generation treats all information as pretty much equal. When it comes to evaluating online information, it's treated as if it's all good.

Back in the analog age, when I was a kid, things were different. I'm not saying this was preferable, but it was obvious to me that there were points of view that were just plain wrong. With education and experience, one starts to see some good even in opposing points of view. But that's not the same as treating all information as equal.

I believe most educators feel it is important for students to learn to identify an author's point of view. Doing this in the context of teaching digital information fluency is one approach, although I think language arts or social studies is a better context. For me, this is an opportunity to integrate online search experiences within standard courses. Students will learn something about information fluency while focusing on authorship and point of view, instruction that naturally fits in language arts and social studies.

Rather than rely solely on textbooks (e.g., book reports) to have students describe point of view (aka bias), I'd bring in blogs and online editorials. Textbooks and reference books are probably the hardest places to detect bias. Works of non-fiction and fiction are respectfully easier. But the real low-lying fruit is the common daily blog post. It's an unparalleled opportunity to see bias up close.

I'll limit myself to one example for now. Let's say you are studying a current event; something students might find interesting like 'climate change'. To make the point that there are different points of view on this subject, you could select (in advance) several blogs written about climate change. Have the students read them, and from the keywords used, identify the author's bias (single point of view) or objectivity (multiple, even opposing points of view). Compare the views. Are they all the same? How are they different? Are they all correct? What makes one better than another? Should everything be believed as written? Why or why not?

Here are three blogs on climate change. I've started to unpack the first one in terms of the keywords and phrases used. The challenge is to do the same with the other blogs.

1- 56 Chicken Little newspapers on climate change 

Keywords and phrases highlighted from just one paragraph may be used to detect bias: "Today, the eco-herd of papers published a collective editorial whipping up hysteria over the issue in the face of massive data manipulation, suppression, and bullying of dissenters." Whether the author considers herself among the dissenters may take more reading and online searching; she's clearly opposed to the position taken by the newspapers.

2- U.S. Unions Join Climate Change Talks in Copenhagen

3- The Climate-Change Travesty

In addition to differences in specific keywords that take a position, each blog also may be analyzed for its tone. Helping students to pay attention to keywords (and phrases) and tone is a positive step toward information fluency.

This activity may be suitable for upper middle school and high schoolers.

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