Fact checking and fake news – ideas for teachers to help critical thinking (UKEdConf20)

Before I start, all my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by β€˜buying me a coffeeβ€˜. Thank you!

This month I was delighted to take part in the UKEdChat Online Conference 2020, and my monthly vlog offering is the recording and summary of my contribution on some ideas how we teachers can aid learning of fact checking, fake news and cognative bias.

Also, at the end of this post, find out how you can use my UKEdConf2020 talk as part of a certified UKEdChat CPD course.

We’re not just experiencing a pandemic, we’re experiencing an ‘infodemic’

On the 15th February this year, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated:

We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic

He is referring to the large volume and consumption of misinformation and conspiracies on social media regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, one example being the ‘5G spreads the disease‘ claim. Fake news and conspiracy theories have historically always been a part of human communication, but the depth, complexity, penetration and engagement rates are unparalleled thanks to the age of the internet and digital social media in particular.

Examples of recent and familiar conspiracies and spurious claims

Journalist John Zarocostas had a very interesting article published in The Lancet titled ‘How to fight an infodemic’, and is well-worth a read if these things interest you.

Being aware of bias: The first (but most important) step

It is a strong belief of mine that appreciating where oneself fits in an issue or topic, and placing themselves in context, provides a crucial foundation to further understanding. Understanding what fake news is, how to spot it, and then apply that understanding through better questioning and criticial thinking will be much more effective if students and teachers are aware of what bias is in the first place, including awareness of their own biases.

While there are a number of videos, resources and text out there to explore cognative bias, I have been frustrated that many don’t lend well as a teaching resource or stategy, until I came across this graphic from Business Insider (click to enlarge):

20 Cognative Biases That Screw Up Your Decisions by Business Insider
Credit: Business Insider

I like this because it is visually appealing and employs a bit of dual-coding with the images. Also it gives an exceptional amount of information very concisely. But the best thing for me, is you can pick and choose what to focus on. For instance, they are perfect for cutting out as cards, or printing out an individual block to make an A4 poster, etc. In short, you can break it up as use as much or as little as you like.

From my experience working with students, the three that might be most recognisible by students and resonate most with them, are as follows:

The Bandwagon effect: “The probability of one person adopting a belief increases based on the number of people who hold that belief. This is a powerful form of ‘groupthink’ and is a reason why meetings are often unproductive.” The compulsion for humans to be accepted and acknowledged is powerful and arguably goes into overdrive with adolesents in particular. How many times have we done, say, an opinion continuum or ‘barometer’ exercise and most students clump together in response to each question posed?

Confirmation bias: “We tend to listen to only information that confirms our ‘preconceptions’ – one of the many reasons why it’s so hard to have an intelligent conversation about climate change.” I chose this one mostly for it being probably the most ‘well known’ and seemily more overt of the cognative biases, rather than something specific to youngesters.

Stereotyping: “Expecting a group or person to have certain qualities without having real information about the person. It allows us to quickly identify strangers as friends or enemies, but people tend to overuse and abuse it.” The issue of stereotyping I think is well covered in schools today, and is challenged as part of PSHEE, citizenship and similar subjects. But to recognise it as a bias is important.

Another easy way to make in-roads into making students aware of their biases, but also, what they could potentially do something about it, is to turn to Geography teachers’ old, late friend, Hans Rosling and his son, Ola.

Their How not to be ignorant about the world TED talk from 2014 stems from the Gapminder Foundation’s mission to tackle outdated views and misconceptions of development around the world, and looks into why cognative biases have brought this about.

Activities to promote critical thinking

The latter half of the talk focused on teaching and learning strategies and ideas. These were based on previous blog entries, so I’ll cover unique points to the talk, and then give a synopsis and callback links rather than go over again.

‘Foreground, background, four corners & Space’

This is something I cooked up as a teaching strategy out of frustration that students seem to use images and photos pretty poorly. This strategy is particularly good at addressing three cognative biases in particular, one is stereotyping, already described above, and:

Anchoring bias: “People are ‘over-reliant’ on the first piece of information they hear. In a salary negotiation, whoever makes the first offer establishes a range of reasonable possibilities in each person’s mind. In terms of images and photos, the achoring bias means that the initial reaction and judgement you have when seeing it, will fuel your analysis and judgements. The picture of Greta below, for example, caused a reaction on social media where some were calling her a hypocrite for using single-use plastics, as that’s what they anchored on.

Salience: “Our tendency to focus on the ‘most easily recognisable features’ of a person or concept. When you think about dying, you might worry about being mauled by a lion, as opposed to what is statistically more likely, like dying in a car accident.” An example I used here was that little attention, therefore, might not be paid to the foreign (Danish) language on the salad pot, and therefore messages would be missed from that.

Visit my ‘Breath, Think, Consider, Tweet’ blog post from September 2019 to get a guide on how to use the ‘foreground, background, four corners and space’ strategy.

Asking ‘better’ questions using a question grid

This is a tool that I’ve used a few times before, but came to know very well thanks to being a trainer of the Geographical Association’s ‘Critical Thinking for Achievement‘ course.

You can use any stimuli for this. An image, a piece of text, an object… The idea is to improve students’ questions so they can think more critically. You can find an example of how I used it as part of a PGCE session half way down my ‘Fake News? Think Critically…’ blog post from February 2019.

fact checking and considering media bias

This part of the talk was well recieved by conference delegates. I presented an interactive online tool that helps assess the level of bias and factual accuracy of different well-known media sources.

Vanessa Otero’s Media Bias Chart (Adfontes Media) is a superb tool. Even better that Vanessa gives transparency to her methodology and recognises the tool’s limitations. I gave a summary of how the tool works and four ways you can use it with your students in the ‘Fake News? Think Critically…’ blog post. Also, check out the Media Bias Fact Check website, which covers more British-based media outlets.


As well as the many embedded links and suggestions given above, I strongly recommend that everyone picks up a copy of the Gapminder Project’s (Hans & Ola Rosling) ‘Factfulness’ book. It is required reading for all Geography educators, but in terms of challenging bias when looking at statistics, it is an eye-opener.

want some CPD credit?

So you’ve read to the bottom of this blog post, and hopefully got a range of ideas to try out in the classroom, but you can also use it towards some certified CPD! See below for details and make my talk (Day 1, Session 2, Talk 14) one of your six sessions to reflect on.

Thank you! All my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by β€˜buying me a coffeeβ€˜.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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