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'Growing our kids to become advanced thinkers': Media literacy as a tool against misinformation

Cyndy Scheibe, an educator in Ithaca, New York, with her five-year-old grandson Ja'Carter learning media literacy through conversations about fruit and reading cereal boxes. (Courtesy of Cyndy Scheibe)
Cyndy Scheibe, an educator in Ithaca, New York, with her five-year-old grandson Ja'Carter learning media literacy through conversations about fruit and reading cereal boxes. (Courtesy of Cyndy Scheibe)

In New Jersey, officials are looking to a new generation to help stop the spread of misinformation and the damage it causes.

The state’s Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law this month that requires all children in K-12 public schools be taught media literacy. Classrooms around the country may teach these concepts informally, but this is the first time a state has implemented this kind of mandate.

Though learning how to think critically about fact and fiction might sound complicated for kindergartners, experts in the field disagree. They encourage families to start routines around media from birth.

Sabrina Burroughs, an early childhood educator and tech mentor at John Lewis Elementary School in Washington, D.C, has taught media literacy to kids as young as three years old all the way up to third grade.

“They can do it,” she says. “When you give students a challenge to think, they will do it. They will master the act.”

Cyndy Scheibe and her three-year-old granddaughter Jaida learning media literacy through reading cereal boxes. (Courtesy of Cyndy Scheibe)

Interview Highlights

On what media literacy is 

“Media literacy is designed to help students of all ages develop habits where they’re learning through expression and using those critical thinking skills to become beyond 21st-century learners.

“In this country, we’re behind the eight ball in growing our kids to become advanced thinkers. We need to have them use technology, but use it purposefully, making sure it’s developmentally appropriate. So we want to make sure that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it for a reason, not necessarily just to use the tool as an entertainment device. They’re using these resources to become better processing thinkers to navigate the world in a deeper way.”

On a sample lesson 

So the perfect example I have is just during COVID, when I was teaching remotely and my students were very confused about what was happening, I allowed them to take that moment as a teachable moment to learn about it. So I had them, with their families, just talk about it. And then, with that, we were taking what they learned and I allowed them to use an app and I gave them kind of a challenge question, just to think about how does it affect you being at home with COVID? What effect is it having on your household? And they were able to make public service announcements, pieces that we shared with other students, from three years old all the way through high school.

“They were using that media as a resource and a learning tool. They were learning things because there was a lot of speculation about what COVID really was and what was happening. This was early on, so we didn’t know.”

On her concern over the spread of misinformation

Oh, gosh, there is a lot of misinformation. In fact, the hardest thing that I think about is when the kids are doing research, where they’re researching something, specifically to make sure that they’re putting in the appropriate context, or text, to make sure that they’re getting a real source.

“So we also do source-based research. We’re looking at three sources and we’re looking to find out if that’s a credible source or if it’s not a credible source. And once we find that source, there are bells and whistles that you can click on that tells you if this is a correct source that you should use or if it’s someone who just wrote something. But we’re learning how to do that. We’re teaching them how to look for something that’s factual.”

On teaching 5 year olds how to understand misinformation 

I had them look at three resources. They had to get something visual. They had to get something that was read, and they had to get something that was audio, or auditory. They were able to present that audio, video or through whatever app they wanted to build. I even had a student who built a rocket to understand how COVID was soaring throughout the world.”

On the importance of teaching media literacy at a young age 

Starting young is the richest time to get students to learn. They’re like sponges at 2 and 3 years old. I have a godson who is 4, and he can tell you how to do anything on his iPad or tablet. If he wants to research dinosaurs or Spider-Man, he knows how to get to those places because he’s been shown once. So as teachers, we model and then we practice and then the kids do. So it’s one of those ‘I do, we do.’ You do concepts where the teacher models what it looks and sounds like. Then they can move forward from there and learn throughout working through the process.”

On adapting lessons to address parental concerns

I have two groups. One group of students is doing public service announcements, in order to talk about how they are dreaming about how they can make the world a better place. And the other group of students, they’re writing books and they’re making digital books, at five and six years old. The ones who want to do a video book will be streamed on YouTube. There [are] going to be e-books for those who want to just do audio books. There’ll be a printed book. And I actually have an old school typewriter that I brought in, so some of my students will actually be typing, so they’ll use low tech to type a book out.

“[One of my students’] parents don’t allow television in the home and they don’t use technology in the home. So for her, I would do something on paper and I may have her record her voice reading the story so she can create an audio book. I would modify according to parent specifications, parent needs, because we always want to make sure that we meet the child in the family where they are. So I don’t necessarily teach the group or the expectations of the group. I teach the expectations of the families. So if the families prefer another methodology, I try to use a different methodology, whether it’s auditory, whether it’s kinesthetic, whether it’s tactile. We use whatever resource meets the child’s needs.”

On the importance of families learning at home 

“It causes the students to become users of feedback loops where they’re making a loop to engage in conversation. And with that being said, they’re becoming those critical thinkers, problem solvers, investigators. They’re looking at resources that are different. In my classroom when I taught preschool, I would just cut off the labels of boxes, whether it was whatever product you like, cereal, or potato chips. They were using those labels and they were learning from environmental print. That’s a form of media that the kids were using in order to use to learn.”

On what she wants adults to keep in mind

I really want the adults in the families to think of media literacy not as a tangible object, something that the kids are going to hold on to, but to think of it as a tool, a resource to grow and to become constructive, critical and conceptual thinkers. So they’re going outside of their boundaries. They’re soaring with images and resources that are going to make them more interested in promoting what they’re learning.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.