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MCDS in Action Blog by Head of School Ben Hebebrand

Aristotle and the Internet

In the aftermath of the recent U.S. presidential election, the topic of “fake news” has received significant media attention with some media sources claiming that the abundance of fake news on the Internet and predominantly distributed by social media sites affected the outcome of the election.

The November 22 edition of “Education Week” reported that researchers administered various tasks to over 7,000 students of different geographical and socio-economic backgrounds to determine if they could detect fake news. “The common thread in the results of these and other tasks, the researchers write, is that young people have trouble judging the credibility of information they find online,” according to the Education week article. Often, young people associate credibility of a source by “how high a story appears on search results,” according to the research.

The preponderance of “fake news” should certainly prompt schools to intensify their efforts to teach students how to discern “fake news,” and indeed, schools have addressed this by introducing new curricula under the umbrella of “digital literacy.”

In talking with MCDS English teacher Mark Childs and History teacher Bob Camosy, both of whom chair their respective departments at our school, it is more than apparent that this skill of evaluating any source of information forms the foundation of what they believe to be a great education and productive life. Put differently, these two MCDS teachers – regardless of the Internet and the emergence of digital literacy – have always made the critical analysis and evaluation of any text or message the foundation of their teaching.

“Maybe it’s a cliché, but the foundation is critical thinking,” said Mr. Camosy. “This kind of thinking is a way of life and applies to all aspects of life ranging from making an informed purchase to reading something on the Internet.”

MCDS students at the high school level pursue the International Baccalaureate degree, a cornerstone of which is an emphasis on critical thinking. Especially in the History curriculum but certainly also the English curriculum, students continuously analyze each source by a process known as OPVL – a process, whereby students must consider a source’s origin, purpose, value, and limitations. In high school at MCDS, this process is a way of life – “OPVL becomes a verb,” explained Mr. Childs in that students and teachers at MCDS are often overheard saying “Let’s OPVL that article.”

During the recent political campaign, each 11th grade student had to offer a formal presentation in which they analyzed an aspect of a political ad, speech, or debate. This project was preceded by a 10th grade study of Aristotle’s writings, specifically his work Rhetoric, sometimes also referred to as the Art of Rhetoric. During that 10th grade year, “students learn fundamental rhetorical concepts to understand and analyze all aspects of an argument,” said Mr. Childs. When studying the Civil War in 11th grade, said Mr. Camosy, “students will read a variety of sources and differentiate between moral and economical arguments.” In grounding his students consistently and deliberately in the OPVL process, Mr. Camosy has come to profess that he does not know of any better method or tool to teach history.

Throughout their high school experience at MCDS, students will “continuously identify and acknowledge the perspective of each source to achieve a thorough understanding of the relevant historical period. Students are asked to apply that same process to contemporary sources and issues,” explained Mr. Childs, expressing confidence in MCDS students’ abilities to spot fake news.

In thinking further on the value of the OPVL, Mr. Camosy turned reflective. “Maybe the ultimate goal is that students OPVL themselves,” adding that a certain degree of self-criticism and recognizing one’s own biases may be the ultimate prize.

We refer to our generation of students as “digital natives.” Technology or not, I believe that teaching students how to analyze and evaluate any source of information is as old as…..Aristotle. Having said that, our “digital natives” may benefit from specific digital literacy skills, which our Academic Integration Specialist Rita Gipp has been teaching to MCDS Middle School students in advisory sessions. I will summarize those lessons in a subsequent blog entry.

1 Comment

  1. And we will probably see an emergence of a “reputation system” that will help discern what’s fake vs not. A kind of “good housekeeping seal of approval” for news reporters or seller ratings on eBay or product ratings on Amazon or driver ratings on Uber — the problem of seperating signal from noise is as old as the internet itself — with no perfect solutions. There will also probably arise a plethora of “technical solutions” to police and block fake news — many of which themselves will be fake or work poorly. An interesting “plugin” has already emerged. In the end, like you say, it will depend on humans displaying common sense, using their IQ and actually doing a little bit of basic digging to to discern real from fake. Or you could just refer to The Washington Post 😉

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