How can we do better? Making the Case for Civic Online Reasoning

This morning I attended a great webinar from Illinois Civics Hub that brought in the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) to highlight new Civic Online Reasoning tools. Dr. Joel Breakstone, Director of SHEG, opened with an exercise that involved a video of a student, a history professor, and a fact-checker approaching some online pieces on the minimum wage and assessing the readings and sources. Spoiler: Despite our touted work to train students to think like historians, the fact-checker did much better than the history professor. Much better. The fact-checker traced the source of the article in 51 seconds; the history professor took 220 seconds. The student came in third.

As a professor of history, I have to admit my first response was to think, ouch. But of course, the work we do with print sources is different, and perhaps more importantly, even though we talk a lot (a lot!) about how reading and thinking like a historian translates into the real world and serves our students when it comes to media savvy, we don’t often bring actual news literacy, media literacy, or civic online reasoning into our classes. We assume that students will absorb these skills from that sourcing step we use when we engage in work with primary documents. No doubt, too, we believe that we are adept at interrogating bias, perspective, and credibility to ferret out motives in all that we read and absorb. I know I do: literally sometimes I stop and think, I am asking this question because I am trained as a historian, and I know that my history degree(s) have made me a more critical reader of all I consume. As the number of history majors has declined nationwide, departments throughout the country, including mine, have touted the ways that “reading like a historian skills” and the critical thinking that our major offers not only builds real-world skills but makes our majors marketable. (Side note: this IS true, and a history major is an incredibly useful major, as a recent American Historical Association article demonstrates.) 

But we can also pause to ask, how can we do this better? This morning stopped me short a bit – in a good way. It has me thinking about how I work with primary documents in my college classroom and with my preservice teachers in thinking about their own classrooms. It also leaves me seeing the value of the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap (EAD) in a new way, highlighting how this integration of civics and history can build critical thinking – the civic online reasoning that SHEG envisions – better for both disciplines, and perhaps especially for history. 

Moving forward, I will be paying more explicit attention to news literacy in my history classroom, and I will push my preservice teachers to better connect history to civic reasoning. SHEG’s Civic Online Reasoning curriculum refers to lateral reading, describing how fact-checkers leave one website to check what other digital sources have to say about it. This is not an altogether different exercise than the sourcing that we do with primary documents, where we ask about our author, their motivation, their bias, their credibility, their audience, and intent. But we don’t often say things – or show things – that demonstrate the way that one (reading like a historian) trains us for the other (reading like a fact-checker in a digital world, one where fake news abounds). So perhaps the next time I use multiple documents to ask students to determine what really happened in Boston in March 1770–and how we know what we know with any certainty–I could design a lateral reading type exercise that has students investigate our authors and kinds of sources. And I could explicitly remind them of the way that lateral reading works in the “real” world. In short: I want to work harder to create continuity and connections between these two kinds of reading and reasoning because the connections are there to make. Students in my history classes frequently invoke the term “biased” when we talk about past sources – this is an invitation to me to ask follow-up questions, such as how do we observe and recognize bias in sources, past and present.   

Finally, I am reminded of the value of interdisciplinary collaboration. In middle and high school social studies departments, that might come naturally, and the EAD roadmap creates all kinds of opportunities for such work and thought. One place comes in the civic participation theme, which for grades 9-12 includes this: “Analyze the past and present role of the media in shaping civic participation, including the importance of using credible sources.” The EAD Roadmap isn’t designed for us in higher education (though it stresses how folks like me should work to prepare future social studies teachers, and many of us in higher education are in that business), but maybe we can look to it, too, as an inspiration to step outside the silos of our departments and disciplines to ask how students are making connections, and how we can build a better understanding. In this, perhaps, both students and historians can catch up to the fact-checkers.