Approaches to Argument in an Era of Alternative Facts
by Tricia Ebarvia
Given the state of today’s political discourse and the complex challenges presented by social media sharing (and over sharing), it’s more important now than ever for teachers to take an active role in helping students navigating the information and misinformation they encounter every day. At this point, many of us might be already familiar with the Stanford study published a few months ago that found that many students cannot discern the difference between stories that are real and those that are not. As the Washington Post reported, “Some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website.”
And it isn’t just students either. Even well-educated adults fall for fake news stories. Just this morning, on my Facebook feed, a friend posted a news story that turned out to be false (someone in the comments had done a fact check). Unfortunately, too often fake news sites have become adept at posing as legitimate sources. Now, when I see a news story from an unfamiliar source, the first thing I do is try to determine where it’s coming from. As literacy teachers, we can no longer just teach our students the traditional Rs of reading and writing. We need to also teach our students about third R—Rhetoric.
Rhetoric is the study of persuasion, and today, there are plenty of individuals, friends, family, interest groups, politicians, corporations, and any number of organizations trying to persuade our students—to buy this, believe that, do this, don’t do that. Information that seems purely objective can be interpreted (or manipulated) in the service of persuasion. Even the youngest students can (and should) be taught to analyze text to look for biases. Just a few weeks ago, my six-year-old came home and told me about how his class was learning the difference between fact and opinion. Of course, teachers have always done this work, but the times seem to call for more. So how? How can we teach our students be critical thinkers, especially of information that might feed into our own biases?
Over the last few months, many teachers and educational organizations have responded to this need by posting ideas for how help students sift through the news. For example, Frank Baker published “Students Need Our Help Detecting Fake News” in on Middleweb. Likewise, at a recent district meeting, our language arts supervisor shared additional resources:
- “The Smell Test: Educators can counter fake news with information literacy. Here’s how.” by School Library Journal
- “How to Spot Fake News (and Teach Kids to Be Media-Savvy)” by Common Sense Media
- “Fake News Fools Millions!” by Junior Scholastic
Article of the Week
In my own classroom, my 9th graders read about current events through an Article of the Week (inspired by the work of Kelly Gallagher). To help students understand what’s behind the rise of fake news, students read or listened to an NPR piece that went “behind the scenes” to locate and then interview a fake news site creator. As we do with all of our Articles of the Week, students used Beers and Probst’s “three big questions” from Reading Non-Fiction to deconstruct the piece:
- What surprised you?
- What did the author think you already knew?
- What confirmed, challenged, or changed what you knew?
Students couldn’t understand why someone would create a fake news story, but after discussing the NPR piece, they had a better understanding of the monetary incentives behind clickbait and like-farming (as Fast Company reports, despite attempts to crack down, Facebook still has a problem with like-farming on its platform). To supplement, I then showed students the following TED-Ed video on “How False News Spreads”—
While it’s important to approach fake news directly, I’ve found that embedding lessons about rhetoric and, specifically, logical fallacies into class is another way to get students to evaluate the validity of any argument, whether it’s part of a fake news story or not. When students get into the habit of reading critically, they can approach all texts with a greater understanding of sound and logical reasoning.
Although I’ve introduced and taught logical fallacies in any number of ways, here are a few approaches that have worked:
To introduce logical fallacies, I use this Prezi that I created several years ago. Although there are many fallacies (just take a look at the visuals to the right!), I try to keep things simple for students by choosing some of the more common fallacies and classifying them under three big categories (I stole this framwork from the textbook The Language of Composition by Scanlon, Shea, and Aufses). I tell students that I am less concerned with whether or not they remember the definition of the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy and more concerned that they keep these three categories in mind, which I frame as questions. When presented with evidence, students should ask themselves:
- Is it accurate?
- Is it relevant?
- Is it sufficient?
I have found that simplifying fallacies under these three questions instructive. For example, when students are presented with a compelling anecdote as evidence, we apply the three questions. While the anecdote may be accurate and relevant, rarely is personal experience sufficient to fully support a claim. And that’s when I direct students to look at how a writer might have included additional evidence to supplement that anecdote. This thinking move, in turn, makes students more aware of the fallacies they might commit inadvertently when they write.
After introducing the fallacies, I then have students examine several infomercials. Deconstructing infomercials works great as an initial text because the fallacies are often so obvious in them. I’ve had particular success with the following two infomercials, one for the Fushigi and the other for the Snuggie.
In both informercials, students can see examples of false authority, circular reasoning, faulty analogy, red herring, either-or, among others. At this point, I then move into an interactive exercise that gets students up on their feet, laughing, and apply the strategies.
I first saw this activity at work during the PAWLP summer institute several years ago when a guest speaker presented it to our group. I pull out several office supplies and other items from my room: a stapler, tape dispenser, hole puncher, microfiber cloth, screw driver, paper clips, dry eraser, etc. Students work in groups to choose one office supply. I tell students that they must put invent a new use for this object and then advertise this product to the rest of the class by creating their own infomercial. The infomercial should be a parody and showcase at least three logical fallacies. Students then act out their infomercial in front of the class. I give students no more than 20-25 minutes to come up with their product, product name, and skit. I have found that the time constraints are just enough to inspire creativity. Plus, since this is in an exercise in satire, students are free to be as outrageous as they can be.
After infomercials, my students I look at several ads and identify the claims in each and deconstruct what evidence (direct and implied) the ad provides to support that claim. We look at print ads but also commercials (Super Bowl commercials, in particular, provide engagement texts for students to examine more critically). For example, in the Jeep “Whole Again” Super Bowl commercial below, students might consider the fallacy of “false authority”—is Oprah Winfrey an authorized expert to speak on behalf of Jeep? What does she know about cars? Or is there another message (claim) that Jeep is making that allows Oprah to speak with authority (patriotism, perhaps)?
Another effective way to teach students to spot fallacies is by looking at editorials. I have found that this works best when I choose editorials that cover the same topic but from opposing views. This past month, for example, I had my students look at two editorials about Betsy DeVos:
- “DeVos Will Be Good for Public Education” – The Detroit News
- “U.S. Senate Must Reject DeVos Appointment” – The Detroit Free Press
This pair of editorials were especially effective because they were both published in newspapers in DeVos’ home state of Michigan. Students could read them side by side, annotate each for the claims and evidence provided, noting any possible fallacies. For example, during our discussion, students discussed the following claim and evidence:
Claim: “DeVos has also received strong support.”
Evidence: “A group of 20 governors, including Gov. Rick Snyder, recently sent a letter to the Senate in support of her nomination.”
One student pointed out that the fact that that 20 governors support her appointment seemed like strong support. Another student, however, pointed out that if you are someone who has an unfavorable opinion of Gov. Rick Snyder, then the fact that he supports DeVos’ nomination is not convincing (one student quickly Googled the governor’s approval rating and found that it was at 44% favorable, 46% unfavorable). Another student wondered if the use of “governors” was a case of false authority. One student responded that governors are the ones who are ultimately in charge of the state departments of education, so perhaps that would make this evidence strong. At that point, I wondered aloud, “Let’s think about this for a moment. Is there another stakeholder group, aside from governors, that might have been this evidence more convincing?” In other words, what if we rewrote the sentence like this:
Evidence: “A group of 20 __________, including __________, recently sent a letter to the Senate in support of her nomination.”
Students’ hands immediately shot up with suggestions: secretaries of education, superintendents, and of course, teachers.
Our discussion of the two DeVos editorials also raised another important point. Students noted how there were places in both editorials that they felt less equipped to judge as having accurate, relevant, and sufficient evidence. Both editorials reference DeVos experience with charter schools, one touting their success while the other criticized their failure. How do we know what to believe, students wondered. In our discussion, students realized that it was their own lack of sufficient, accurate, and relevant background knowledge that hampered them. Without a solid understanding of how charter schools work, they could not know for sure whether or not some fallacies were at work.
This was perhaps the most important lesson that came out of discussion. As readers—and as citizens—we are most susceptible to logical fallacies and fake news when we are ill-informed. We cannot know if something is logically sound or true or false if we don’t have a basic understanding of the issues at stake. Acknowledging our own ignorance on an issue—rather than allowing ourselves to be misled or manipulated by emotional appeals—is an important first step in reading the world critically.
Unfortunately, we live in a world in which it’s becoming harder to keep up with the never-ending cycle of biased or fake news. It’s easy to see how students may feel frustrated and cynical about our social and political discourse. One student commented that it feels like “everything is biased” and that “all media is manipulated.” They have a point. That said, I pointed out that this conclusion reveals another important logical fallacy—false equivalence. It is this fallacy that I’m starting to fear is the most dangerous for our time. Is all media constructed with a purpose? Of course. And students need to be aware of that fact. But bias and opinion are not the same as falsehood and lies. This is the key distinction—and getting students to understand this difference is the greatest challenge for us as teachers. How can we encourage habits of healthy skepticism versus cynicism? Cynicism breeds disengagement and feelings of powerlessness. It is skepticism that breeds critical thinking and ultimately, responsible citizenship.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature, AP English Language & Composition, and AP Seminar at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. In addition to being a PAWLP Co-Director, she is also a 2016-18 Heinemann Fellow. She can be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia and her website, triciaebarvia.org.