I recently attended a thoughtful and thought-provoking webinar conducted by Ira Socol. If you are a twitter user, you may recognize him as @irasocol. The result of this webinar was the identification of yet another needed skill that our education system needs to address with passion, the skill to verify truth in information. Of course this is just another skill to be added to a long list of skills that educators must prepare our students with, if kids are to be successfully educated. By the way I don’t think this skill is represented on a standardized test.
The failure of our education system to address this skill is evident and underscored each and every day in the news. Technology has given us the ability to store and enable access to a huge amount of information which continues to grow exponentially. The information however, is both correct and incorrect, both true and false, both fact, and fiction. The skill to not only be able to obtain the information, but to also verify its truth, is essential. A reason to support public education is the necessity to educate the population of our democratic society to make intelligent choices of those issues which will affect the lives of all citizens. If people are basing their decisions on false information, the intended outcome will not be successful.
Consider the emphasis that our news agencies now place on the popular man/woman in the street interviews. People are asked their opinions on topics without regard to how well they are prepared for that opinion. This has been referred to as “Opinion without Portfolio”. Yet, after the opinion is given, it makes the airways without verification of the truth. To continue the process we have a large number in our society that believe, if it is on TV, it must be true. If we needed a life saving operation, would we go to the person on-the-street interview to consider our choices?
Consider the role of Polls in newscasts. If we think of a poll as a type of formative assessment or a snapshot of public support of an issue, it is valid. When the opinion poll and individual contributions to that poll are featured as the focus of the story it is a problem. The opinion is then presented as fact and it, at the very least, muddies the issue.
Consider the TV ads for Cable, Satellite, and Verizon. Each claims to be giving the facts as the truth. When we compare the facts of each, we must determine someone is being less than truthful. We do not hold anyone accountable we just believe whichever one we like without verifying what is true.
Joe the Plumber was my favorite. He was a plumber who asked, then candidate, Obama a question about taxes and starting his own Plumbing company. Joe was then catapulted to fame as an expert on taxation, free enterprise, and entrepreneurship. He was even a highlighted speaker at John McCain rallies. He was interviewed several times, as if he was an expert, and those interviews were broadcast to the American public. His credentials were never questioned until after the election and his 15 minutes of fame had been somewhat dulled by the facts.
Politicians are the worst offenders in our efforts to teach the skill of verifying the truth. Members of both political parties claim to be representing what the American People really want. This is not a stretching of the truth but an outright lie on the part of both parties. A plague on both of their houses. Now, we have the Birthers, those claiming the President is not American. There are also the experts who claim there are Death Panels in healthcare plans. What about legislation that will be “breaking the bank” or” saving the ranch”? We have become a society of extremes with the truth being lost in the middle.
If we are to be considered good educators we need to be able to instill in our students a need to strive for the truth. They need to be able to determine what information is of value. If information is the food of knowledge, then we need not consume food which has no nutrition at the best, or is poisonous at the worst. This is difficult for educators to do, for if we teach our students to question, they must question us as educators as well. “Be careful what you wish for!” comes to mind. Where does this skill fit in a list of all of the other skills that educators are now required to teach? Is this for the English teacher, or the social studies teacher, or the science teacher? Of course Math is always truthful. That is probably why it is so hard.
As always I come away with more questions than answers. I do believe however, that an important question was posed by Ira Socol: “How do we know that’s true?” This must be asked by everyone in our democracy and it is the educator’s responsibility to make it so.