Thoughts on “Education for Misinformation”

I’ve been kicking around the concept of “red herrings” for a few years, at least since I started to recognize them. I attribute this skill to the habits I developed while a doctoral student, but we all know how “reliable” such stories are about ourselves.

For me, red herrings always appeared in our school structures, and IT decisions. We often spend time and energy doing things that really have no effect on operation or performance. (The greatest red herring I ever saw was the effort to put smartboards in every classroom in a school. When they got down to the last 2 rooms, the teachers didn’t want ‘em and—with my help—they developed alternative strategies for what they wanted and would serve their special needs populations. The principal and IT director insisted on smartboards to “fulfill our commitment five years ago to provide a technology-rich environment in every classroom.”)

I seem to have missed a whole school of red herrings, however. While I was focusing on misguided structural and organizational efforts, I’m afraid, curricular red herrings were all around.  

Two events convince me of this. First, the latest in a decades-long series of conversations with my wife. She has worked in non-teaching positions in schools for a long time and lived with me during masters and doctoral studies, and she has very deep insights into schooling. Our most recent discussion was about (yet again) math education, and I offered “we need math teachers who understand number rather than math teachers who can deliver the math curriculum.” There’s the red herring. We spend time, energy, and money teaching skills and knowledge that doesn’t really affect students’ ability to use math or think mathematically.

Second, I read the recent report “Educating for Misunderstanding: How Approaches to Teaching Digital Literacy Make Students Susceptible to Scammers, Rogues, Bad Actors, and Hate Mongers” (which is linked below). The authors of this study describe a project in which college students were asked to evaluate the credibility of two web articles. In a nutshell, the authors found the students were accurately applying the rules they had been taught (many of which are still on university web sites reproduced in the report), but they could not find the satirical article, nor could they identify a highly biased article.

Iatrogenic diseases (those conditions caused by the actions of physicians) is introduced in “Educating for Misunderstanding” to suggest that (just as some actions take by doctors can have adverse effect on patients) there are steps we take as teachers that can have deleterious effects on our students. If may seem inconsequential that students can’t use math, but is it really? It may seem inconsequential that they can’t find misinformation, but is it really?

I am hopeful that the third decade of the 2st century will find educators identifying our iatrogenic practices. Maybe then our students will leave us able to use math and recognize misinformation… and maybe have a school experience with reduce racist practices. We will see.

Sam Wineburg, Joel Breakstone, Nadav Ziv, & Mark Smith, “Educating for Misunderstanding: How Approaches to Teaching Digital Literacy Make Students Susceptible to Scammers, Rogues, Bad Actors, and Hate Mongers” (Working Paper A-21322, Stanford History Education Group, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 2020).

education for misunderstanding cover