By Abandoning Fact-Based Teaching, We’ve Opened the Door to Disinformation

Nature abhors a vacuum. When the facts are no longer there, the void must be filled with something. And that something has become disinformation.

A new focus in some schools is helping students sort through the facts, tossing out disinformation, and embracing fact-finding.

An initiative in Florida designed to teach “digital literacy,” is one such program. (

Michael McConnell, who spent his career in national intelligence and security, is working to get this type of instruction into schools. McConnell told National Public Radio, “We need to understand this so we can appreciate what’s happening to us, and be able to not only understand it, to be able to navigate through it,” McConnell said. “That’s what I call digital literacy.”

OK. Let’s rewind. We still have high school students who cannot read beyond a fifth-grade comprehension level, can’t name the seven continents or point to them on a map, and have no idea how to write a decent paragraph.

How does this relate to the mass consumption of disinformation? It relates in that adults who went to school after the country largely abandoned the fact-based teaching paradigm are now at a huge disadvantage: they just don’t know enough to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

We started abandoning fact-based teaching in the 1980s, just as my children were becoming school-age. It was always my assumption that they would be taught as I was taught. They would learn facts. And then they would have a basis from which to formulate ideas and questions in their minds.  They would learn where the Nile River was and memorize their multiplication tables. They would know which trees were coniferous and which were deciduous.

Teachers “teaching” students was the accepted pedagogy. Instead, the pedagogy flipped to “students as learners.” What my children encountered in school, back in the 1980s and ’90s, were group projects for which one student mostly did all the work and the rest did nothing. They got consensus-building, and “soft-subjects,” like self-esteem and multi-cultural appreciation classes, where they made up acrostics with their own names and constructed piñatas. We were in the age of the experimental “Outcomes-based Education” model. It didn’t matter how long it took for a student to learn something. And Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, with principles such as, “students as their own teachers,” and “teachers as facilitators.”

This, I’m afraid, is where we dropped the ball. I believe they called it Goals 2000. And there was money to be made by going about the country peddling teacher training in dubious models.

When children learned facts, they learned to trust what is true. They could check their answers and know for a certainty that they knew it. They found answers they’d looked up in an encyclopedia or textbook.  And their teachers carefully graded their papers and made them go back and correct their mistakes. Sure, we have come a long way in our understanding of cultural bias. And we need to continue making changes as the facts become clear. Because the teaching of facts is an important preventative to making up and consuming disinformation. If someone told a third grader in 1960 that the Amazon River was in Africa, he could rebut the fact. “It’s in South America, you idiot!”

They told us that children no longer needed to know facts by heart. All the facts are on the internet, at the touch of a button. Well, a lot of disinformation is also on the internet at the touch of a button.

If we don’t fill our children with fact-based truths, as well as moral truths, through our careful teaching and example, they have not a leg to stand on.

Like poplar trees easily blown over in the wind, our children’s shallow understanding of the world will allow them to be bowled over by rancorous entertainment “news” that makes viewers to feel like victims. Group projects and consensus building will have groomed them for accepting disinformation lest they have to do all the work themselves.

A boy came up to the teacher’s desk where I was substitute teaching one day, and made a white supremacy hand sign. He asked me, “Do you know what this means?”
“Yes,” I said. “Now go sit down.
I admit, he took me off guard. On the other hand, I smiled to myself when he was gone: the white-supremacy configuration reminded me of the “flying A-hole” sign kids used to make in the 1960s and ’70s, when they thought somebody was acting like a total jerk.
The tragic thing is, whoever taught him that sign, whether he learned it at home or on the internet, has no idea what it means to investigate the facts. The kid was probably nine or ten, and the home-based influence on his thinking at this stage was far greater than my momentary influence could ever be.
So how do we reach young minds, and teach them to question what they see and hear?

I am not certain the new programs teaching students how to recognize disinformation is the answer. While such programs may help some students, in my view, it’s more important to have teachers who require them to memorize poetry now and then, and to read good literature, and get up in front of the class and read a fact-based report they’ve researched themselves.  Kids need adults they trust to hold them accountable when they don’t get their facts straight.

Better to be embarrassed by a caring teacher for copying from a reference book when you’re eight than be arrested for invading the U.S. Capital when you’re 45. FFG

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