How do we teach students about fake news?

A guide to safeguarding critical thinking in the digital and online world

By Mark Bentley, Online Safety & Safeguarding Manager, London Grid for Learning

In a previous age there was the truth and there were facts. Nowadays, however, it appears such things aren’t so important. The term ‘fake news’, which sprang into popularity following the EU referendum and US election, has been cited by both the right and left and seen each accusing the other of employing it as an election-winning tactic. It has even been added to dictionaries as its meaning and usage continue to diverge, leaving us with a pithy putdown for any negative news coverage.

With so many different views and opinions being stated as facts it’s no wonder many of us are confused. And if we’re confused, just imagine how many young people feel trying to find reliable, unbiased information online.

Ultimately the curse and beauty of teaching is that we can’t ignore the big issues that divide public opinion, such as immigration, extremism, gender issues and conservative versus liberal politics. It may be fashionable to say we live in a ‘post-truth’ era, but of course there is no such thing. So how do we teach our children to think critically when it comes to the content they view online – without imposing our own biases on them in the process? Being aware of cultural sensitivities and fear of either offending or igniting hostility can often make us neglect this aspect of teaching however the importance of this topic in the current climate means it isn’t something we can simply choose to ignore.

It’s never too early to start teaching critical thinking

In fact the lessons that we need to teach our young people aren’t all that different to those we use to teach about the dangers of online grooming, radicalisation or child sexual exploitation. As teachers we need to help pupils spot the blurred lines between fact and opinion and spot the motives behind opinion pieces, in the same way they would view an invitation or approach from a stranger.

This is not an easy task; however there are places teachers can turn to for help. At the top of the list is Trust Me, a tool developed for encouraging critical thinking skills for the online world. Sites such as Channel 4’s Fact Check and the BBC’s Reality Check are also good examples of critical analysis of the latest media headlines. For social media, encourage students to visit the False News section of the Facebook help centre which gives advice to young people on ways to spot fake news as well as how to report it. You can also check out the fake news section at where you’ll find a compilation of resources, including those named here.

What is essential is that we as teachers help pupils to form their own opinions rather than pushing them down any particular route. The Wall Street Journal has created a very useful tool for this. The tool allows you to pick a topic and see the latest tweets on the subject by fierce Republican and Democrat supporters. This juxtaposition provides a great illustration for older learners of how people can passionately hold drastically diverging views, but still claim the facts are on their side.

Top tips for spotting fake news online can also include looking closely at the site the news comes from including examining the URL to see if this is an established news outlet. The way we would encourage students to examine sources in a history lesson can be similarly applied to online articles, ask students to consider what the aim of an individual article is, then examine the website itself. Is it simply trying to attract clicks?

It is also important to remember that it’s never too early to start teaching critical thinking. For younger learners it’s worth exploring the Dog Island or Tree Octopus Conservation websites. These sites are great and fun demonstrations of the fact that we shouldn’t believe everything we see online!