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November 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 3

Evaluating the Media? Begin with Questions

Evaluating the Media? Begin with Questions- thumbnail
A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner with a delightful 3rd grader named Nancy. Throughout the meal, Nancy led me through a series of narrative acrobatics, recounting colorful tales from school, home, and dance class.
One of her stories described a man jumping really far and landing in a very tiny pool. It sounded a bit suspicious. When I casually inquired how Nancy knew this information to be true, she stood up and proclaimed, "Of COURSE, it's true. I saw a man talk about it on YouTube."
Hmm.

The Need to Question

When hearing anyone speak through any medium in today's world, it's necessary to begin with questions, not confidence. The advent of digital networks and media sharing has enabled just about anyone to share his or her words online. And although this growing ability to connect and listen has enormous value for our students, it makes critical consumption of information more important than ever.
In the past, the publisher or organization that gave a speaker a forum or curated an event generally ensured that the speaker's purpose was clear—and the message was credible. Presenters at professional conferences were thoroughly vetted by the association's board. Documentaries were created only by experts in the field. Although many speakers and presentations are still vetted in this way, many are not. Hundreds of videos and speeches are posted to YouTube every minute, for instance, with no one screening the content for accuracy.
Because we can no longer be sure that the words of someone with a public forum are credible, it's our responsibility as consumers to determine a presenter's underlying motivation and accuracy. Howard Rhinegold, an expert on digital networks, describes this skill as "crap detection." Although the phrase is originally from Ernest Hemingway, the concept is more relevant than ever.
Our students, however, are naturally trusting. They need to develop the skill to separate the wheat from the chaff, to carefully question what they hear. Doing so is complex: Consider all the questions I (an adult with years of experience) had to ask myself as I sifted through online media during the past week:
  • Is this true? How do I know?
  • What's the source of this person's information?
  • Who is funding this person or idea?
  • Who is the intended audience?
Such questioning is especially important when listening to a talented speaker. A compelling speech can be as fast-paced and exciting as an action film full of special effects. A good speaker uses storytelling, rhetoric, and charisma to capture listeners' hearts and minds in a single swoop. He or she persuades an audience by projecting confidence or tugging on heartstrings—or both. Sometimes, these tactics are clearly used to share great truths and catalyze positive change. Other times, a speaker's motives are murkier.

An Untaught Skill

Evaluating a speaker's purpose and credibility is a lifelong skill—one highlighted in the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards. Anchor Standard 3 states that students must be able to "evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric." Like all the standards, this one spirals in complexity through the grade levels. In the early grades, students are only expected to engage in a relevant conversation. Later, they're expected to consider various speakers' words carefully and determine whether each speaker's message is valuable, credible, and accurate.
To meet this standard, students must interact with public speakers and their ideas. Determining a speaker's purpose and credibility requires active listening. And active listening not only engages students, but also parallels the empowering ways the standards approach literacy in general.
Educators often use speaking and listening skills in our classrooms, but we rarely teach them explicitly. Instead, we often assess speaking and listening by assigning presentations and evaluating how well students present and listen to one another. But without modeling, ample practice, and feedback, students won't be equipped to transfer these skills.
This is especially true of learning to determine a speaker's purpose, evidence, and credibility. To sharpen this skill, teachers must find engaging speakers on engaging topics, then explicitly instruct students in questioning and evaluating these speakers' words.

TED-Ed: A Wealth of Speeches

One good source of speeches is TED-Ed, a website and community the TED (Technology, Education, and Design) organization created specifically for teachers. The site curates a collection of 5- to 20-minute videotaped TED Talks by compelling speakers at TED conferences. Topics range from science to psychology to literature, and the content's sophistication varies also. TED-Ed features speeches on topics appropriate for K–12 students and gives teachers a framework for customizing students' listening experiences.
To use TED-Ed, create a free account on the site and browse for a speech on any subject. The site provides sample free-response and constructed-response questions connected to the message of each speech—and makes it easy to create customized questions. Students see your selected questions on the screen after they watch the speech; if they're watching on individual devices, they can enter their answers and record their comments on-screen.
Although these talks are best used to spark group discussions, the questions can also deepen students' thinking and ability to evaluate a speaker's message. Teachers can use TED-Ed in many ways to hone students' listening and analytical skills. Let's see what this looks like in a middle school classroom.

Getting Beyond Face Value

Melinda is a 6th grade literacy teacher in a school in the midwestern United States. Her classes include students with varying needs and reading levels. I helped Melinda craft her speaking and listening curriculum over the course of a school year.
Melinda's students are a friendly, inquisitive bunch. Many of them watch people speak all the time on television and online—but Melinda worries that these learners don't ask a lot of questions about what such speakers share. They accept most things at face value, instantly sharing them with friends and others in person and through social media.
One afternoon, as Melinda and I were writing an instructional unit together, she shared this concern with me. She wanted to help students learn to evaluate a speaker's point of view, specifically to identify which of a speaker's claims are backed by evidence and which are not. She wanted students to grasp the difference between personal experience and research-based evidence, to know that although both are valuable, they signal differing levels of credibility.
Melinda and I crafted several essential questions for students to investigate as they listened to speeches throughout this unit, including the following:
  • Is this speaker credible? How do I know?
  • How much evidence would be sufficient to make this speaker's point?
  • Does the speaker provide enough evidence?
Next, Melinda gathered a series of interesting speeches from TED-Ed, including "There's No Dishonor in Having a Disability" by Steven Claunch and "The Pros and Cons of Public Opinion Polls" by Jason Jaffe.

A Compelling Speech—with Scant Evidence

The class watched Steven Claunch's speech several times. This touching, beautifully animated speech recounts Claunch's experience of overcoming a birth defect to become a star basketball player.
First, students watched the entire speech without interruption and shared personal reactions to it in a whole-group discussion. Overall, learners enjoyed Claunch's speech. One said, "The speaker was brave and strong despite the challenges he faced." Another told a personal story about a baseball teammate who had a disability.
Melinda's students then discussed the speech's theme and the speaker's intention. They'd worked with the concept of themes earlier in the year and easily identified Claunch's theme as, "Never be deterred by challenges facing you." In the past, Melinda's instruction would've ended here, after sharing personal reflections and identifying a theme. However, the Common Core state standards—and the demands of a knowledge-based society—require learners to go deeper than this.
So Melinda added more. Using resources from the TED-Ed site, she guided students to do a "close read" of Claunch's speech in a way that opened their eyes to his point of view and use of evidence. She posed these questions to students:
  • Is this speaker credible? How do I know?
  • How much evidence would be sufficient to make Claunch's point, and does he provide enough evidence?
  • What evidence does Claunch use to back up these claims: (1) You have a choice: Let the obstacle overcome you or overcome the obstacle; (2) Pity is bad; and (3) Everyone has a disability and an ability.
As students watched the speech a second time in small groups, rewinding to review as necessary and looking at the transcript of the speech, they answered these questions as a team. Melinda prompted each team to go on an "evidence hunt" to find as much evidence as they could within Clauch's speech for the claims in question.
As students worked on the task, Melinda gave some groups guidance and direct modeling while others worked almost independently. As students grappled with the task—chatting with one another, researching online, rewatching the video, reading the transcript and determining what evidence was used for each claim—I heard these snippets of conversation:
  • "He's using his experience on the basketball court as evidence that pity is bad. Is that a fact or an opinion?"
  • "I think a piece of evidence that pity is bad is that the speaker got mad when others felt bad for him."
  • "Can it be evidence if it's someone's story? I like this guy, but I'm not sure what he's saying is backed up by facts."
After some time, Melinda brought the class back together to discuss their responses and thoughts. They quickly started to notice that the claims Claunch made were based on his personal experience—and that although personal experience is important, it's not quite as convincing as research or scientific data. These 6th graders reflected that sometimes very compelling speeches that relate personal experience actually have less credibility than speeches in which claims are backed by facts and evidence.

Credible—But Not Compelling

Later, students explored Jason Jaffe's speech on public opinion polls. Again, they first watched the entire speech, and then watched it again in groups. These groups answered the same questions Melinda had posed for Claunch's speech, with the first question asking what evidence Jaffe provided to back up these three claims: (1) Public opinion polls are either inaccurate or misleading; (2) A poll's quality relies on its sample; and (3) We continue to use polls because they give a reasonable summation of what many people think.
The conclusions the class drew from this speech contrasted with those they drew from listening to Steven Claunch. They noted that Jaffe used evidence, facts, and verifiable historical stories to support his ideas. However, they also noted that his presentation was much less inspirational!
Consider the following excerpts from students' discussion and individual responses:
  • "The evidence is clear for the first claim: polls can be inaccurate because they only represent some people, not everyone."
  • "I checked [in other sources] Jaffe's claim that polls can ask only a few people but be reasonably accurate about what a large group thinks. They confirmed his ideas."
  • "This video was boring. I didn't even know who was talking."
The insights gained by listening critically to these speeches stuck. Over the next week, Melinda heard students discussing "claims and evidence" for many of their favorite YouTube videos and TV shows. The students suddenly had shared vocabulary and analytical tools to evaluate the media bombarding them each day.
Melinda's students continued to engage in close reads of speeches throughout the year. In May, when it came time for candidates for class president to deliver speeches, many of Melinda's students encouraged their peers who were running to provide lots of evidence and personal experience in their speeches. They assured the candidates they would be asking lots of questions.
Determining a speaker's point of view, purpose, and the credibility of his or her claims will prepare our students for the challenges they'll meet beyond the walls of school. If we are to cultivate informed consumers, dedicated citizens, and passionate activists, we certainly want students to listen to others with empathy. However, when it comes to information literacy, students need to begin with questions.
End Notes

1 Rhinegold, H., & Weeks, A. (2012). Net smart. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

2 National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy. Washington, DC: Author.

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