The role of media in K-12 literacy and civics education in America
When I look back over the last year, I am reminded of how, now more than ever, we are living in a world that epitomizes everything that the US Army coined as VUCA after the Cold War — Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.
From the war in Syria, to
Brexit, to the refugee crisis, the perceived rise in terrorism, and the US presidential election, VUCA has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. No one or industry is immune, including K-12 education.
The pace of change today is faster than it’s ever been before which puts enormous pressure on the need for new learning systems to ensure future generations can develop the right skills to thrive in a VUCA world.
Many look to technology to solve our problems, but as most of us have experienced, technology is a double-edged sword. It is both a destroyer and creator — producing both winners and losers.
Neil Postman, a renowned American educator, media theorist, cultural critic and author of Technopoly posited over 25 years ago, that as a result of technology (even before the internet), we have been transformed into “a society that no longer merely uses technology as a support system but is instead shaped by it, with radical consequences for the meanings of politics, art, education, intelligence, and truth.”
When one looks at the massive changes in social behaviors and attitudes over the past quarter century, it’s hard to argue with him.
So it’s no wonder that by a margin of 2-to-1, today’s high school students (who grew up never knowing a world without the internet) believe that innovation is evolving far too quickly and is threatening their privacy, data, and job security — a fear validated by a study at Oxford University that reported that 47% of US jobs are at high risk of computerization.
When I saw this data, I must admit I was surprised that our youth fear what they embrace so passionately — social media and mobile devices. But then I thought about something that serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and author of The Great Rewrite, Leonard Brody, shared about the power of the internet. Let me explain…
When one looks back at hundreds of years of media innovation, it historically consisted of inventions such as the Gutenberg Press
(and movable type), recorded media, radio, the telephone, and television.
These inventions, while impressive at the time of conception, were fundamentally much the same:
• They broadcast content on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis
• They were technologically very expensive to build
• They were all regulated by government
But when the World Wide Web was made publicly-available in 1993, for first time in our history, people owned a many-to-many communications system, where millions of us could communicate with millions of others for almost no cost — a new, democratized form of media that is almost impossible for governments to regulate.
So what does that mean to public school students and why should we care? Because it’s all about power. Prior to the internet, power/authority was controlled from the topdown, whether that be from presidents, principals, priests or publishers. Fueled by massive changes in technology and social behavior, that traditional pyramid of power has been completely inverted in almost every facet of our lives.
And Brody isn’t alone in his thinking. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer Study showed that there has been a fundamental shift in the relationship between those who traditionally held authority and the people they once controlled.
We live in a people-powered world and today’s youth have possessed that power their entire lives. As much as they fear the pace of change in innovation, social media and mobile, they aren’t prepared to give up any of it because it gives them authority their parents never had — a power that makes them question everything and examine more closely the world around them through a new, more critical lens.
This had led them down a similar path as previous generations, developing a growing lack of trust in some of the fundamental pillars of society — government, business, media, and civil society. But those born after 1995 are not copycats of their predecessors.
According to a 2016 Guardian study of Generation Z:
• 70% worry about terrorism (which is not surprising giving their unfettered 24/7 access to the horrors of bombings, beheadings, and murders on their smartphones)
• Only 6% trust big business to do the right thing, versus 60% of adults
• One in 10 trusts the government to do the right thing, versus 20% of Millennials
• 70% are greatly worried about the amount of inequality in the world
And if you find those statistics disturbing, the Center for Generational Kinetics reports that only 47% of them say that voting is important — a number significantly less than the 75% of Millennials who registered to vote in the 2016 election.
Can you imagine if only ~40% of those Gen Zs who think voting is important now, actually don’t follow through when given the chance to participate in an election like those Millennials didn’t in November? What does that say about the future of democracy?
Is media to blame?
It’s easy to cast aspersions on media given all the studies and polls that show a growing mistrust in it by adults.
But what about our high school students? Data shows that teens are actually more trusting of mainstream media than adults by a margin of 59-48%; and more than 80% of them say they regularly engage with current affairs.
But today, Gen Zs trust algorithms and search engines twice as much as traditional editors and personal contacts to recommend relevant content for them — content they use in their personal lives and studies.
It wasn’t all that long ago that students could not use what they found on the internet as a primary source for their assignments. In fact, they were taught to distrust, prima facie, any information on the web. Everything they wanted to reference online had to be validated by a “real” primary source.
So why do they trust algorithms so much now? It all comes down to a presumed inherent bias in human beings who curate content. So, it’s no wonder most pupils immediately head to Google or Facebook when tasked with a research project involving media.
As a result, because social media is such an active player in disseminating news, Gen Zs don’t follow the news as much as it follows them, frequently encountering it by accident and it being often questionable in terms of its quality.
But what’s interesting is that these same teenagers place a higher importance on facts than their parents and tend to rely on external expertise rather than the echo chambers of information on social media.
Which is perhaps why 61% of 16-24-year-olds visit news websites or apps on their smartphones.
In fact, Gen Zs trust experts four times more than people like themselves, with teachers considered the most influential and trusted sources of information for them, despite their parents’ growing lack of trust in the public school system.
Our young students are hungry for accurate information and want a variety of news sources to verify stories and actively seek out opposing viewpoints in order to educate themselves through a range of perspectives. But the big question is, “Do they really have the criticalthinking, analysis and fact-checking skills to accurately assess what they are consuming in an objective way?”
In this age of fake news and “alternative facts”, evidence would strongly suggest not.
Media literacy and civics in public schools has reached a crisis
If ever there was a time to invest in media literacy and civics in K-12 education, it is now.
According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU), civics education is a far cry from what it should be, and is worse now than it was in 2006-2007 when the average score of 14,000 college seniors on a civic literacy exam was an ‘F’.
When looking at public schools, only half of US states require civics for high school graduation. In 2014, National Center for Education Statistics assessed over 9,000 eighth grade students and discovered that only 17% were proficient in US history, 24% in geography, and 22% in civics.
For the past three years, there have been no further assessments done due to “lack of funding”.
The problem is not going unnoticed or ignored by any stretch, but it has yet to receive any significant funding to provide the support it needs countrywide outside of a few progressive states.
One dedicated group, represented by experts in K-12 social studies education, along with 15 professional organizations disciplined in civics, economics, geography and history, developed The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards — a framework that provides guidance to states looking to upgrade their existing standards to better prepare public school students for success in college, careers, and civic life.
One of the foundations of the framework is a comprehensive and global repository of digital and print sources such as historical documents, traditional media, economic statistics, new media, maps, legislative actions, and court rulings, to name just a few.
But sources themselves do not constitute evidence, as we’ve witnessed with the rampant rise in “alternative facts” recently. In our VUCA world where ideas, information and misinformation is just a mouse-click away, students must be able to separate the wheat from the chaff — something to which they’ve demonstrated less than proficient capabilities according to a Stanford University study that discovered that 82% of middle-school students couldn’t differentiate between a native advertisement actually labeled as “sponsored content” and a genuine news article on a website.
So it’s no surprise that a central component of the framework includes helping students become proficient in gathering, analyzing, and evaluating a diversity of sources for accuracy and completeness, and then using only factual evidence to build interpretations, explanations, and arguments.
Collaborative and experiential learning is also a key component of the C3 framework in practice. With C3, students learn how to work/learn effectively alone, with partners, in small groups, and whole class settings. They become proficient, not only in how to consume and critique media, but how to create it, develop opinions and supportive arguments.
Gen Zs value creativity more than any previous generation, but teaching methods today aren’t living up to their expectations or needs.
Librarians can play a crucial role
With the advent of the internet, social media, and a whole new breed of on-demand post-Millennial digital natives sitting in K-12 classrooms, school librarians’ jobs have not only evolved, they’ve been rewritten. No longer do they play a passive support role within the curriculum, but are now instructional collaborators with teachers and students.
In Hanover Research’s Emerging and Future Trends in K-12 Education one of the key findings was, “The changing uses of technology require that teachers also change their methods of instruction…. As a result, teachers must shift from being holders and distributors of knowledge to becoming instructional facilitators who encourage students to direct their own learning.”
The days of just needing to master the Dewey Decimal System are long gone. Today to meet the demanding needs of their GEN Z constituents, librarians need to continually:
• Educate themselves on the latest and emerging technologies and social trends
• Understand the unique characteristics of those they serve — traits that seem to morph year-on-year
• Learn how to create engaging digital library spaces
• Provide services and instruction in physical, online, blended, and remote environments
• Scout and recommend library tools and media resources to meet the urgent demand for diversity
• Train students on how to use library resources and create/co-create content (articles, opinion pieces, presentations, case studies, videos, etc.)
• Mentor and encourage students to direct their own learning In the past, school libraries offering printed media with a few select digital editions of periodicals and newspapers was sufficient to support the student body and teachers. At that time, Newspapers in Education programs adequately met a limited need for local and national news content. But today’s expectations far exceed these antiquated single-source solutions. The world of knowledge is at students’ fingertips and they expect unlimited access to all it has to offer.
It’s time for K-12 schools and librarians to critically analyze the relationships between media, audiences, information, and power and give their students the RIGHT resources at the RIGHT time through the RIGHT channels with the RIGHT support to help them become better global citizens and guardians of American democracy. Despite Gen Zs having a more fearful view of the future than generations before them, 78% believe that the American Dream is still attainable. We can help them. Let’s do this!