To Encourage Creativity in Kids, Ask Them: ‘What if’?

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Matt Richtel teaches children the “what if” exercise he used to write his book “Runaway Booger.”CreditHarperCollins Publishers; illustration by Lee Wildish

I was in a second-grade classroom recently reading from my new children’s book, “Runaway Booger.” After I finished, and the giggling subsided, several students asked a version of the same question: Why did you write about a humongous ball of mucus?

It was the question I’d hoped for.

I was using the reading session, at the teacher’s request, to get the children to think about creativity. Where does creativity come from? Are there tricks they can use to be more creative, or, for that matter, that parents and educators can instill?

It’s a subject I think about a lot, as a writer of newspaper articles, mysteries and nonfiction books, a syndicated comic strip and music. (It is sad but true: To accompany the booger book, I wrote a rock anthem called “Don’t Pick Your Nose.”) Scholars who study creativity say that stoking it involves helping children strike a balance between two dichotomous tools: the whimsy and freedom of a wandering mind, with the rigidity of a prepared one.

We need to help them be both “sensitive and assertive,” in the words of John Dacey, professor emeritus of education at Boston College. “Sensitivity means being open to new ideas, and very laid back,” he explained. Assertiveness doesn’t just mean being bold enough to express the idea but having enough experience and judgment to feel true authority about its value.

It means understanding a genre’s structure and form. That can take hard work, and years, but to Dr. Dacey, merely having a good idea doesn’t qualify as genuine creativity until it is matched with execution and follow-through.

“People think creativity is inspiration,” Dr. Dacey said, “but it’s mainly perspiration.”

To help the second graders inspire and perspire, I pulled out a red marker, and on a whiteboard I wrote two words: What if.

I explained to them that these two words are a kind of secret tunnel into the world of new ideas. In fact, I told them, I only came up with the booger story after asking myself: What if a family picked their noses so much that they create a monstrous booger? And what if the snot rocket rolled out the window and gained so much steam it threatened to roll over the town? And what if the whole story rhymed?

“Your turn,” I said to the class. “Who wants to give me their own version of ‘what if?’”

Before I relate some “what if” responses I’ve gotten from various classes, I’ll note that Dr. Dacey thinks the “what if” exercise is a great way to encourage a laid-back, nonjudgmental approach to open-ended thinking. Plus, this exercise helps children generate lots of potential ideas, and research shows that truly creative people tend to be idea factories. (Lest I take too much credit — or any — I recall coming across a related idea in a book about fiction writing called no less than What If?”.)

A few days after I visited second grade, I tried the “what if” exercise with a kindergarten class.

“What if you sat on a toilet and it took you to Egypt?” said a curly-haired boy sitting in the middle of the rug. Giggles ensued until I said, “Fantastic! Who can use ‘what if’ to say what happened next in the toilet story?”

“And then you sat on the toilet and it flushed you to outer space?” said another boy.

More hands shot up from eager contributors. I called on a girl sitting near the back of the rug.

“And what if you took a giraffe elevator from outer space, and it brought you back?” she offered.

This, it dawned on me, was a significant moment (even though I’m not sure what a giraffe elevator is). The importance of the suggestion was that it hinted at the other key aspect of creativity, namely, having experience and judgment to turn an idea into a creation.

What the girl was suggesting was that she wanted to create some resolution — to get the toilet-traveler back home. In some sense, she was rounding the idea into a story, a structure. Was she lucky, or brilliant, preternatural? Most likely, according to the scholars I spoke to, she had picked up the logic of life and form by being in the world and interacting with books, movies and other story forms. In fact, some scholars think that merely being engaged with the world is enough to learn structure, and that formal training is overrated. But not all agree with this.

KH Kim, a professor of innovation and creativity at the College of William & Mary and the author of “The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation,” for instance, believes that people can be truly creative only after they’ve had 10 years of real experience studying and playing with a given genre, say music, books or art. Along the way, though, she says students should practice creative flights so they can develop inspiration and perspiration in lock-step.

Ultimately, Dr. Dacey offered a nifty measure for how to know whether we’ve helped our child come up with something truly creative. When we see or hear or read the end product of true creativity, he said, we will experience four emotions: surprise, stimulation, satisfaction and savoring.

To my chagrin, there was not a word in his definition about being grossed out by the prospect of a massive town-threatening mucus balloon. Well, that’s O.K. I’ve got more weird ideas where that came from. Hopefully, your children will, too.

The Unspoken Rules Kids Create for Instagram

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CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

The challenge of growing up in the digital age is perfectly epitomized by the “bikini rule.”

“You can post a bikini or bathing suit picture only if you are with your siblings or your family in the picture,” said one middle-school girl participating in a focus group on digital media. In other words, don’t try too hard to be sexy, and you will be O.K. in the eyes of your peers.

By high school, the rules change. At that stage, a bikini picture often is acceptable — and even considered “body positive” in some circles.

As an educational consultant, I lead workshops on digital media at schools around the country, giving me an unusual glimpse into the hidden world of middle and high school students. While parents sometimes impose rules for using social media on their kids, the most important rules are those that children create for themselves.

And these often unspoken rules can be dizzying.

Girls want to be sexy, but not too sexy. Be careful which vacation photos you share so you don’t brag. It’s O.K. to post photos from a fun event, but not too many.

In one focus group I held recently with seventh-grade girls in an affluent suburb, all the girls were avid Instagram and Snapchat users. It was clear that they understood the dynamic of presenting a persona through the images they posted. It was also clear that they had a definite set of “rules” about pictures.

Aware of their privileged socioeconomic status, they talked about how it would not be O.K. to share vacation pictures of a fancy hotel. They used an example of a classmate who had violated this rule. Like many unspoken social rules, this one became vivid to these girls upon its violation.

As part of a school project, the girl had displayed pictures from a vacation at a foreign resort. Her classmates considered that an immature form of “bragging.” They said other kids had gone on even “better trips” or lived in “amazing houses,” but “knew better” than to post about it.

The same girls identified another peer as “too sexual,” a judgment that some of their parents even encouraged. A few of the girls said that their moms did not want them to hang out with her because she “acts too sexy.” One of the girls expressed this very sentiment in a group text that included the peer in question, causing hurt feelings and conflicts.

Middle school can be an especially complicated time for girls. They are experimenting with social identity, while their always-on digital world intensifies the scrutiny. Many want to be seen as pretty (and even sexy, in some ways), but they also want to be seen as innocent and “nice.” This is an impossible balancing act. Parents can help by suggesting more empowering alternatives to posting bathing suit pictures.

Another group of seventh graders (mixed gender, in a different community) shared with me the rules around how many pictures to post from an event. They had a sense of what was acceptable and what was not. Posting one to three images was O.K., they said, but they all agreed that it was “obnoxious” to “blow up people’s phones” with a huge stream of images from a party or event.

These images can lead to feeling of exclusion as well. Imagine watching a party unfold, in real time, on Snapchat or Instagram — when you’re not there. This experience can be absolutely devastating to teens and tweens. When I asked these particular seventh graders about this, they said that it happened all the time — and that it can be hard to deal with.

With their lives constantly on display, it’s challenging even for well-intentioned kids to avoid making others feel excluded. Their “rule” for this was that “it is better not to lie or make excuses” if you are with one friend and another friend wants to hang out. It’s better to be honest and say, “I have plans” than to lie and say, “I have too much homework,” and then risk sharing images of yourself out with friends later.

Parents often feel as if their children’s smartphones are portals to another world — one that they know little to nothing about. A study released last month found that fewer than half of the parents surveyed regularly discussed social media content with their tweens and teens.

But parents need to know their child’s peers have created their own set of rules for social media, and they should ask their kids about them. What are you “allowed” to post — and what seems to be off-limits? Is that “rule” the same for boys vs. girls? Why or why not? Can you show me an example of a “good” post (or a “bad” post)? Does social media ever stress you out (and can you give yourself a break)? How can kids in your group make group texts or social media nicer for everyone?

In a study published last summer, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the pleasure centers of teenagers’ brains responded to the reward of getting likes on Instagram just as they do to thoughts of sex or money. Just as parents try to teach children to have some self-control around those enticements, we also have to talk to them about not falling victim to behavior they’ll regret when craving “likes.”

As parents, we don’t want our kids to make a big mistake online: writing something mean in a group text, posting a too-sexy picture or forwarding one of someone else. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 24 percent of teenagers are online “almost constantly,” so it’s essential that they know how to handle themselves there.

Getting your child to articulate the unspoken rules can be the first step in helping him or her be more understanding with peers. When we observe our children harshly judging others who have a different sensibility about how to use social media, they need us to set aside our judgments about their world and to help them cultivate empathy for one another.

The Teenage Brain: Stress, Coping, and Natural Highs

Edutopia

During a workshop that I was facilitating on marijuana and the teen brain, a high school sophomore said to me, “I take Ritalin on weekdays for attention, but go off it on the weekends because that’s when I smoke weed.” I asked him, “Are you saying that you’ve got a mind-altering substance in your brain every day?” He answered with a concerned look, “Do you think I should get off the Ritalin?”

It’s no surprise that young people are taking more psychoactive chemicals for psychological problems, such as poor attention, anxiety, and depression. In many cases, like the student above, they choose to self-medicate in addition to using a prescription drug. In some schools, I’ve been told that as many as 25-40% of their students are on medication for psychological and behavioral problems, and that does not include recreational use. In addition, when I meet with teens as part of my work speaking at schools across the country, the vast majority of them report that they have stress, anxiety, and trouble paying attention in class. Medication can save lives for those with severe and debilitating conditions, but for everyone else, I believe we can do better.

In order to foster a sense of resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with life, we need to educate young people about natural highs. Over the past decade, neuroscience research has shown that exercise, meditation, positive social support, laughing, and many other factors can elevate mood and improve brain functioning. These activities don’t require putting a chemical into your body, but they do take time and effort to have an impact.

The Teen Brain vs. the Adult Brain

Teenagers have lots of reasons for being more anxious, stressed, and distracted than adults. They deal with high expectations from parents, social pressure from friends, and the constant fear that their smartphone will go dead and totally ruin their life. To make things worse, the teenage brain is generally more anxious than the adult brain. This may be due to the rapid development of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional expression, compared to the slower development of brain areas involved in decision making and reasoning. Also, the teen brain has a larger pleasure center than adults, which means that rewards feel — well, more rewarding. This is particularly true of risks taken in unsupervised settings with their peers. As a result, the teenage brain is a contradiction of epically exhausting proportions, both more anxious and more thrill seeking than its adult counterpart.

Teenage angst is nothing new, but using natural highs to alleviate it might be novel. One of the best-studied natural highs is running or any form of cardio exercise. My wife loves running. She even runs when it snows. I always tell her, “If you get lost, I’m not coming to get you.” When I ask her why she runs, she says, “It makes me feel better, even when I’m tired. It also helps me focus at work.” It turns out that there’s a lot of research backing her up. Thirty minutes of any physical activity that elevates the heart rate helps to release endorphins and improve mood and cognitive functioning. Regular running has also been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus, the most important brain structure for memory. It doesn’t have to be intense physical activity, either. Taking a walk in the woods has shown benefits for memory, mood, and attention.

In my case, I love meditation, despite having been a skeptic for many years. Meditation has proven to be a powerful stress reliever for me, particularly at night. Students report some of the highest levels of stress during the evening hours when they’re tired but expected to finish homework and fight off distractions. Meditation is like a cell phone charger for the brain. I encourage students to start out with 5-10 minutes in the late afternoon, before dinner, to test it out. The goal is to practice calming the mind. Nodding off is fine, even welcomed. I’ve presented this to students and staff for over a year, and the response has been tremendous. They are in a better mood after the meditation and report experiencing greater productivity that doesn’t interfere with their sleep.

Exploring Your Own Natural High

Whether you love surfing, biking, cooking, or gardening, consider your favorite pursuits as means to your own natural high. Invite young people to experiment with perceiving the activities that make them happy through the lens of a natural high, and then report back to you about how it made them feel. This can be a great bonding experience for the classroom and teach skills for dealing with stress for years to come. Check out yoga and meditation classes in your community — some might even be free. Visit websites such as Inward Bound or Guided Mindfulness Meditation, along with meditation apps that you can download. For the classroom, check out Natural High, an online source of free videos and curriculum for teachers to help youth identify and cultivate their passions.

Does your school have a dialogue with students about recognizing stress and exploring the best means of coping with it? What does that look like? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom

When I started teaching, I assumed my “fun” class, sexuality and the law, full of contemporary controversy, would prove gripping to the students. One day, I provoked them with a point against marriage equality, and the response was a slew of laptops staring back. The screens seemed to block our classroom connection. Then, observing a senior colleague’s contracts class, I spied one student shopping for half the class. Another was surfing Facebook. Both took notes when my colleague spoke, but resumed the rest of their lives instead of listening to classmates.

Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning. And yet, education requires constant interaction in which professor and students are fully present for an exchange.

Students need two skills to succeed as lawyers and as professionals: listening and communicating. We must listen with care, which requires patience, focus, eye contact and managing moments of ennui productively — perhaps by double-checking one’s notes instead of a friend’s latest Instagram. Multitasking and the mediation of screens kill empathy.

Likewise, we must communicate — in writing or in speech — with clarity and precision. The student who speaks in class learns to convey his or her points effectively because everyone else is listening. Classmates will respond with their accord or dissent. Lawyers can acquire hallmark precision only through repeated exercises of concentration. It does happen on occasion that a client loses millions of dollars over a misplaced comma or period.

Once, a senior associate for whom I was working berated me for such a mistake and said, “Getting these things right is the easy part, and if you can’t get that right, what does it say about your ability to analyze the law properly?” I learned my lesson. To restore the focus-training function of the classroom, I stopped allowing laptops in class early in my teaching career. Since then research has confirmed the wisdom of my choice.

Focus is crucial, and we do best when monotasking: Even disruptions of a few seconds can derail one’s train of thought. Students process information better when they take notes — they don’t just transcribe, as they do with laptops, but they think and record those thoughts. One study found that laptops or tablets consistently undermine exam performance by 1.7 percent (a significant difference in the context of the study). Other studies reveal that writing by hand helps memory retention. Screens block us from connecting, whether at dinner or in a classroom. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that just having a phone on a table during a meal “is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people.”

For all these reasons, starting with smaller classes, I banned laptops, and it improved the students’ engagement. With constant eye contact, I could see and feel when they understood me, and when they did not. Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material. I broadened my rule to include one of my large upper-level courses. The pushback was real: A week before class, I posted the syllabus, which announced my policy. Two students wrote me to ask if I would reconsider, and dropped the class when I refused. But more important, after my class ends, many students continue to take notes by hand even when it’s not required.

Putting aside medical exemptions, many students are just resistant. They are used to typing and prefer it to writing. They may feel they take better notes by keyboard. They may feel they know how to take notes by hand but do not want to have to do so. They can look up material, and there’s no need to print assignments. Some may have terrible handwriting, or find it uncomfortable or even painful to write.

To them, I’ll let the Rolling Stones answer: You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. My students need to learn how to be lawyers and professionals. To succeed they must internalize an ethos of caution, care and respect. To instill these values and skills in my students, I have no choice but to limit laptop use in the classroom.

Supporting Transgender Students in Single Sex Schools

NAIS

All-girls and all-boys independent schools face a unique moment of reflection as they consider policies to support openly transgender students. How might girls’ and boys’ schools stay true to their gender-specific missions while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies? Join this online conversation with girls’ and boys’ school administrators and representatives from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), and International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) as together we reflect on current challenges and future opportunities for educators to support transgender and nonbinary students in all-boys and all-girls schools.

Recording of Webinar

Synthesis of Breakout Discussion Groups:

Supporting Transgender Students in Girls’ and Boys’ Schools Tuesday, November 15, 1:00 p.m. ET

How might your school stay true to its gender-specific mission while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies?

● Multiple breakout groups wrestled with the existential question: “What does it mean to be an all girls school or all boys school?” ○ Discussions raised the ideas of strong communities, and single-gender schools as safe spaces for students to explore their identities and grow intellectually and socially. ○ How do these ideas converge with gender fluidity or a non-binary concept of gender? Can schools still create a safe space for transgender students to explore their identity and find their voice? ○ Some schools emphasized our commitment to our kids and the value of each of them within our schools and beyond, and to consider how their transition will impact their continued growth and development into adulthood, college, returning for transcripts, and more. ○ Overall comments across all breakout groups emphasized the need to support the student and keep them at the center, as opposed to creating hard and fast policies.

● Another thorny question that was raised was “Can it be inconsistent with a school’s mission to have a transgender student in the school?” ○ Depending on where the student is in their school career, can the school better serve the student by keeping them in the community or by helping them find a school where the mission is better aligned with their transitioning identity? ○ Some girls schools reasoned that there was mission congruence in aligning women living in a patriarchal culture with transgender individuals in a dominant binary culture.

● Some groups focused on the wording or underlying meaning of the school’s mission ○ Specific words and phrases pulled from mission statements, such as “to be rather than to seem”, creating a caring and diverse community, affirming the worth and dignity of every individual, can be explicitly used to rally support for students ○ With a mission statement such as “build fine young men, one boy at a time”, finding space for a transitioning student is challenging, but language focuses on the individual needs of each student, which creates room for interpretation.

● Based on Tony’s narrative, some schools mused on the difference between supporting the transition of students who are existing members of your community versus encountering transgender students in the admissions process. Most attendees thought there should not be a specific question in admissions applications to screen for transgender students. What have been the primary challenges to confront in having initial conversations around supporting transgender students in your school? What have been the most rewarding moments?

● Challenges ○ Shifting from a binary view of gender. How we understand what a girl or what a boy is. ○ Parental perception and expectations. They send their student to a school and the paradigm shifts. Not ready to have conversations with their young students about gender and sex. ○ Education of and communication with the boards of trustees. Using outside resources from experts (Gender Spectrum) or religious organizations (Episcopal School) is beneficial. ○ Admissions process when a student has already transitioned and the school may not know at the outset. ○ Boarding schools. Housing. Which floor does the student live on? Based on a discussion with a lawyer, the students are living on the floor of the gender with which they identified.

● Points to Consider ○ Go through the student’s experience minute to minute and analyze every aspect of your school to ask what can affect them during a transition. If we backtrack and experience our school through students’ eyes, then maybe we can relate with them when they’re exploring their gender expression even before they make the decision to transition. We want to support our students fully, and maybe this starts sooner than when a student comes to us with a firm decision to transition. Maybe more students need our support as they are questioning. ○ Anecdotally, the largest groups of students who are talking about transitioning are ages 4 – 6 years old. When we started to talk about the process, we thought we’d work more with older, high school students. With this younger age group, it raises the question of whether we can continue to serve this student well years after they transition?

● Initial Steps of One School Shared ○ We are gathering groups of faculty, staff, trustees to start an ongoing conversation about vocabulary, transitioning and gender fluidity. We hope to proactively learn about the gender spectrum and think strategically about our approach now, so we will be ready to help a student when they need our support (rather than reacting to the situation when it does arise). We’re thinking about the series of concentric circles of faculty we’d involve and inform so that a specific student is supported but also so that their privacy is respected. The better we prepare ourselves as a school community, the better we can support all of our students.

How to Become a ‘Superager’

Think about the people in your life who are 65 or older. Some of them are experiencing the usual mental difficulties of old age, like forgetfulness or a dwindling attention span. Yet others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp. My father-in-law, a retired doctor, is 83 and he still edits books and runs several medical websites.

Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? “Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. My colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick.

Our lab used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and compare the brains of 17 superagers with those of other people of similar age. We succeeded in identifying a set of brain regions that distinguished the two groups. These regions were thinner for regular agers, a result of age-related atrophy, but in superagers they were indistinguishable from those of young adults, seemingly untouched by the ravages of time.

What are these crucial brain regions? If you asked most scientists to guess, they might nominate regions that are thought of as “cognitive” or dedicated to thinking, such as the lateral prefrontal cortex. However, that’s not what we found. Nearly all the action was in “emotional” regions, such as the midcingulate cortex and the anterior insula.

My lab was not surprised by this discovery, because we’ve seen modern neuroscience debunk the notion that there is a distinction between “cognitive” and “emotional” brain regions.

This distinction emerged in the 1940s, when a doctor named Paul MacLean devised a model of the human brain with three layers. An ancient inner layer, inherited from reptiles, was presumed to contain circuits for basic survival. The middle layer, the “limbic system,” supposedly contained emotion circuitry inherited from mammals. And the outermost layer was said to house rational thinking that is uniquely human. Dr. MacLean called this model “the triune brain.”

The triune brain became (and remains) popular in the media, the business world and certain scientific circles. But experts in brain evolution discredited it decades ago. The human brain didn’t evolve like a piece of sedimentary rock, with layers of increasing cognitive sophistication slowly accruing over time. Rather (in the words of the neuroscientist Georg Striedter), brains evolve like companies do: they reorganize as they expand. Brain areas that Dr. MacLean considered emotional, such as the regions of the “limbic system,” are now known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain. They’re important for many functions besides emotion, such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience.

And now, our research demonstrates that these major hub regions play a meaningful role in superaging. The thicker these regions of cortex are, the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention, such as memorizing a list of nouns and recalling it 20 minutes later.

Of course, the big question is: How do you become a superager? Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We’re still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that these critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment. The Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” That is, the discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines: They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.

This means that pleasant puzzles like Sudoku are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Neither are the popular diversions of various “brain game” websites. You must expend enough effort that you feel some “yuck.” Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.

In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

So, make a New Year’s resolution to take up a challenging activity. Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Work that brain. Make it a year to remember.

How to Teach High-School Students to Spot Fake News

Northport, N.Y., High School seniors look for examples of direct evidence and verified information in news stories.
High school seniors in Northport, New York, look for examples of direct evidence and verified information in news stories.

Janis Shachter

 

When the AP United States history students at Aragon High School in San Mateo, California, scanned the professionally designed pages of minimumwage.com, most concluded that it was a solid, unbiased source of facts and analysis. They noted the menu of research reports, graphics and videos, and the “About” page describing the site as a project of a “nonprofit research organization” called the Employment Policies Institute.

But then their teacher, Will Colglazier, demonstrated how a couple more exploratory clicks—critically, beyond the site itself—revealed the Employment Policies Institute is considered by the Center for Media and Democracy to be a front group created by lobbyists for the restaurant and hotel industries.

“I have some bright students, and a lot of them felt chagrined that they weren’t able to deduce this,” said Colglazier, who videotaped the episode in January. “They got duped.”

One student responded loudly, “Fudge nuggets!”

 

The exercise was part of “Civic Online Reasoning,” a series of news-literacy lessons being developed by Stanford University researchers and piloted by teachers at a few dozen schools. The Stanford initiative launched in 2015, joining a handful of recent efforts to help students contend with misinformation and fake news online—a problem as old as dial-up modems but now supercharged by social media and partisan news bubbles. The backers of these efforts warn that despite young people’s reputation as “digital natives,” they are woefully unprepared to sort online fact from fiction, and the danger isn’t just to scholarship but to citizenship.

 

Stanford’s myth busters, led by education professor Sam Wineburg and doctoral student Sarah Cotcamp McGrew, have field-tested 15 news-literacy tasks of varying difficulty, with about 50 more in the works. Can middle-school students spot “native advertising” (ads masquerading as articles) on a crowded news website? Can high-school kids check the authenticity of an alarming image posted on Facebook? Will students investigate the sources of controversial claims? Will they seek corroboration? By and large, according to a report the group published in November, the answer in each case is no.

“Overall,” the report concluded, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

 

The news literacy initiative is based in the Stanford History Education Groupthat Wineburg founded in 2002 to train teachers how to use primary sources and help students critically evaluate historical claims. The group also created a free digital curriculum called “Reading Like a Historian” that’s been downloaded more than 3 million times, according to Wineburg.

 

“We live in a world where our library begins with G,” Wineburg said, for Google, and the Common Core’s push for evidence-based reasoning falls flat if students trust everything that pops up in their Google search results.

 

Even before a deluge of fibs and fakery swamped our recent election cycle, Wineburg and company realized that readers of online news need many of the same skills used by a good historian, such as identifying the sources of claims and asking questions about their evidence. After all, what shows up in your Twitter or Facebook feed can come from anywhere, and a post-election BuzzFeed analysis suggested the fake stuff spreads faster than real news, thanks to hyper-partisan readers blindly sharing sensational headlines.

“This isn’t just a problem with kids,” said Wineburg. “Reliable information is to democratic functioning what clean air and water are to public health.”

 

Fortunately, long-neglected civics education seems to be on the rebound in many states, which has helped groups like the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University get their message into K-12 classrooms. The center has run a course for undergraduates since 2007 and has since expanded into secondary schools by hosting summer teacher-training workshops and making course materials available online through its Digital Resource Center. In January, it plans to launch a massive online open course (aka MOOC) called “Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens.”

 

One early K-12 adopter of the Center’s news-literacy lessons was Janis Schachter, a social studies teacher at Northport High School in Long Island, New York. Schachter took one of the center’s first summer trainings and has taught Northport’s news-literacy course since 2011 as an elective that meets New York state’s “participation in government” graduation requirement.

 

“My students are all about social media. They’ve never known life without it, and it’s where they get all their information,” said Schachter. “Whether that information is from a news organization or from your uncle, it all looks the same to them.”

Gradually, Schachter’s students learn how to sort through it all—to check for multiple, informed, and named sources, and for claims backed by evidence they can independently verify.

 

“I tell the kids, it’s not fair that we have to do all this work, but the reality of the internet is that we do,” said Schachter, who also stresses that students only need to verify news they plan to act on, whether by voting, protesting, or just spreading the story by sharing it.

Still, learning news-literacy skills is one thing, and the motivation to use those skills is another. If that tantalizing headline in our Facebook news feed fits our political outlook, why do the digging that might undermine it?

 

The fact that so many of us now get our news in partisan online echo chambers sets up “a perfect storm for fake news,” according to Joe Kahne, an education professor at the University of California, Riverside.

In some good news, a new study Kahne co-authored, based on a national survey of young people ages 15 to 27, found that self-reported media-literacy training did make people significantly less likely to believe a factually inaccurate claim even if it aligned with their political point of view.

 

Kahne plans to study news-literacy efforts to discover what specific strategies get young people to value facts, whether they bolster their existing beliefs or contradict them. For now, one popular suggestion by news-literacy educators is to tap teenagers’ instinctive aversion to people telling them what to think.

 

“One of the messages we’ve tried to stress more and more lately with the rise of fake news is this: Do you want to be fooled?” said Jonathan Anzalone, assistant director of the Center for News Literacy. “Wouldn’t you rather make up your own mind?”