Teach Today's Kids to Spot Tomorrow's Fake News

Giving young minds the tools to assess the credibility of information isn't as hard as it seems.

Early civic life.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

One piece of news that Americans seem to agree on is that we live in an age of fake news. Views vary, however, on how to combat the problem.

Here's a good place to start: in school and at a young age. Research shows that giving children the intellectual tools to assess the credibility of information is neither as hard nor as amorphous as it might seem.

We would do well to weave three principles into the standard curriculum. You might think that they are already a big part of American education. They aren't.

The first is to teach children to ask good questions and seek reliable, informative answers. Young children are voracious information gatherers -- they probe, explore, observe and tinker all day long. But research shows that their appetite for information actually diminishes once they are in school.

In their book, "Children Learning at Home and at School," researchers Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes show that children ask as many as 27 questions an hour at home but fewer than four questions an hour at school. My students and I recorded students in kindergarten and fifth-grade classrooms, and found that children often go for hours at a time without asking a single question.

This shift isn't simply the inevitable product of maturity. It comes from schools that favor compliance and completion of tasks over inquiry. An initial step in a counter-fake news curriculum, then, is to create classrooms that encourage children to ask questions about a wide range of phenomena, and to provide the time and guidance for them to refine their questions and search for satisfying answers.

Ann Brown’s research has shown that when teachers organize the curriculum around questions and their answers, children learn much more content and also become better at thinking a topic through. Helping children learn to ask good questions and spend time finding good answers takes time that teachers may feel they don’t have in a curriculum already crowded by mastery of content and other less essential skills.

In one study we showed that when teachers feel rushed to help children master information they discourage question-asking. In another study, Melissa Koenig and her colleagues showed that 3- and 4-year-olds were more likely to trust the information provided by a person who had previously provided them accurate names for objects than someone who had given them inaccurate information. Children as young as 3 begin to make fairly careful decisions about sources of information.

Interestingly, this instinct can weaken over time. By the age of 6, children begin to give up some of their intuitions about the world around them in favor of what they are told by trusted authorities, even when those authority figures mislead them. Their initial sense of how to evaluate sources of information needs to be amplified and sharpened at school. Teachers should encourage children to weigh what they are told, and to think about what makes a given source of information reliable.

As the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley shows, families differ in the way they talk with their children. In some families, adults regularly ask children to identify the source of information ("where’d you hear that?"), and studies suggest that such questioning helps children become more discerning consumers of knowledge. Teachers can promote the same “questioning” stance throughout the school day.

A second essential feature of good thinking is the ability to engage in argument grounded in reason. This skill develops over time, and only under some circumstances.

Very young children have what Columbia University psychologist Deanna Kuhn calls an absolutist view of the truth -- that there is only one truth on any given topic. By the time children are 6 or so, they typically take a multiplist stance, believing that there can be equally valid views on a topic. By early adolescence, children can eventually adopt an evaluativist stance. They can understand that some claims have more empirical support than others and that those claims are more convincing.

But raising "evaluators" is not a sure thing. Psychologist Caren Walker and her colleagues enlisted 7- and 8-year-olds to participate in regular philosophy discussions with peers for three months. They found that at the end of that time, children’s ability to understand and engage in high-level argument was substantially improved.

But their research also shows that classrooms aren't typically designed to promote these skills. (Without the intervention, children’s argumentation skills did not improve.) A wide range of studies on learning buttresses this: Our schools tend to focus on procedural skills (how to solve the problem in the workbook or test) and little time on underlying conceptual understanding.

In related work, Andrew Shtulman’s research suggests that many college students are no more able than elementary-school students to distinguish between claims based on evidence and those based on narratives shared within a given culture.

When children spend significant time in reasoned debate about complex matters, they become better at it. Work by Gareth Matthews shows that when children are given opportunities to talk about abstract issues regarding truth and justice, they can engage in thoughtful and open-minded discussion. The work I’ve cited all shows that when students get to talk in depth about interesting and sometimes ambiguous topics, they get better at it.

In addition, children who work in groups and are encouraged to discuss controversial and intellectually rich aspects of what they are learning acquire more information, remember it longer and are more eager to continue studying the topic. Yes, this seems obvious, but the data have, so far, had little impact on school curriculums.

Finally, children should learn how to think through the implications of someone’s claim or promise. Again, this isn't a new thought: Aristotle said that the well-educated person was one who could consider an idea fully without accepting it.

And here, too, young children have the tools for such thinking. They are natural inventors: making up games, building forts and devising contraptions. These early inventions are the building blocks of ideas. To invent, children must solve problems, put information together in new ways, and revise as they go -- intellectual skills that are essential to considering an idea.

Moreover, by age 5, children can think forward and backward about scenarios and consider alternate outcomes: "If I had folded the paper in the middle, the plane would have stayed up longer." They thus have the rudimentary tools to test assumptions.

For this reason, schools should provide children with opportunities to invent. In the early years, those inventions might be forts and bug traps. As they get older, the inventions might involve devising new ways to govern within a community, or measure wealth, or ideas for rehabilitating criminals.

U.S. children spend little time developing their own ideas, because they spend most of their time absorbing information and skills from textbooks and lesson plans, which they are typically discouraged from questioning.

Teachers should guide students to think through their inventions, reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t, weigh a plan’s intended and unintended consequences, and speculate on what might improve the idea.  

The first step is to encourage teachers to engage in open-minded informed argument with one another. The second step is for them to learn how to set up activities that promote such dispositions in their students.  

Finally, teachers can learn how to give the feedback that helps students improve their reasoning and the evaluation of information, without shutting down children’s natural aptitude for inquiry and invention.

Nearly all children can get better at asking good questions and seeking information, evaluating the source of that information, weighing the strength of an argument in terms of its reasons, and thinking through the implications of a given plan.

If children spend plenty of time practicing the components of good thinking, they will be much better equipped to distinguish between true and false, real news and fake, and to participate in civic life.

(Susan Engel's most recent book is "A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-Run High School and a New Vision for American Education," co-written with Samuel Levin.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Susan Engel at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.