Civic Online Reasoning Across the Curriculum

The fifth session of the Civics Across the Curriculum webinar series was held on Thursday, February 18, 2021. This year’s theme builds on the theme from the originally scheduled Democracy Schools Network Spring 2020 convening, “Every Teacher is a Civics Teacher: Best Practices for Civic Learning and Organizational Supports.” View a recording of the session.

In order to better understand and address their students’ civic online reasoning skills, a team of teachers from Neuqua Valley High School partnered with the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). SHEG is an award-winning research and development group that comprises Stanford faculty, staff, graduate students, post-docs, and visiting scholars; they seek to improve education by conducting research, working with school districts, and reaching directly into classrooms with free materials for teachers and students. They have created a Civic Online Reasoning curriculum to help students develop the skills needed to navigate our current digital landscape.

Joel Breakstone, SHEG Director, began the presentation by explaining two ideas that contribute to the need for civic online reasoning skills:

  • The amount of misinformation and disinformation that exists online has dramatically increased over the past few years.
  • Just because today’s students have grown up in a digital world does not mean that they are particularly adept at navigating the Internet for accurate information.

Sarah McGrew, Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, College Park, provided additional background on a 2018 study that she conducted with Sam Wineburg, the founder and executive director of SHEG. The study compared how professional fact checkers, historians, and first year college students evaluated online information. They were directed to a website and asked to determine whether it was trustworthy. The researchers noted the methods they used, the questions they asked and the conclusions they drew. Based on the study, researchers were able to determine that certain skills were significant in being able to determine whether a website was one that could be trusted.

These skills are the foundation of SHEG’s Civic Online Reasoning curriculum, and provided the basis for their partnership with Neuqua Valley High School, especially as teachers decided to focus their work on the skill of lateral reading, a strategy for investigating who is behind an unfamiliar online source by leaving the webpage and opening a new browser tab to see what trusted websites say about the unknown source. Neuqua Valley was especially interested in providing scaffolded supports for teachers across grade-levels and laying a foundation for this work through freshman social studies and science courses.

Two of the Neuqua Valley teachers discussed their experience with using these tools. Deanna Lindsey, World Geography teacher, had her students assess several different types of digital content—website, video and infographic-while studying India. Adrianna Toomey, who teaches Biology, designed activities where her students evaluated Tik Tok videos, and other types of social media to determine their reliability. (Find these lessons and others developed by the team.)

Tom McManamen, Social Studies Dept Chair, Kelli Tufo, Social Studies teacher and Carrie Ory, Library Media Director shared some take-aways from their involvement in this project:

  • Embedding these skills in the curriculum is ideal, rather than including as a separate unit.
  • Utilizing the skills in a cross-curricular manner allows students to better make connections, and provides a stronger scaffolding for them to apply the skills in a variety of classes.
  • There is no such thing as too much repetition with these skills. Even as students begin using lateral reading skills, there is backsliding. Additional practice is critical.
  • Constant communication among teachers involved in this work provides shared information on methods, assessments and outcomes.

We look forward to our continuing series on the first and third Thursday of the month from 4-5 pm on Zoom. Hope to see you at future webinars.