Learning to distinguish fact and opinion is one of the most important skills students can learn in school. It serves students for a lifetime and in all aspects of life—from knowing how advertisers get them to buy products to analyzing news stories and the sources. No matter their political leanings, students need to know how to analyze information and differentiate between fact and opinion. They need to be able to pick reliable sources when conducting their own research as well.
Unfortunately, many students do not learn this skill, and that has a negative impact on our country and on their own lives. Perhaps it is because we, as teachers, focus more on memorization than analysis. Students learn analytical skills by doing, not reading and memorizing. It is like learning how to ride a bike, swim, or read. You cannot learn to ride a bike by reading about it or by watching someone else do it. You need to do it yourself.
We cannot function as a democracy if people don’t know the difference between fact and opinion—and how to speak up and make an informed argument. We need students in school to practice being an informed electorate. That is one of the challenges we are encountering today: students are not practicing in school, they are memorizing. They don’t know whether to believe what they read or not. They don’t know how to check to see if what they are reading is actually “fake news.”
In a 2018 Pew Research Center study, U.S. adults had difficulty telling the difference between fact and opinion, with just 26% of those surveyed able to correctly classify a full list of five factual statements and 35% of adults able to correctly classify five opinions. According to Pew, “The politically aware, digitally savvy, and those more trusting of the news media fare better.” It makes sense.
We all want to fare better. It is in the best interests of our country for all adults to fare better. Teaching this skill should begin in elementary school when kids are learning to read.
There is only one way to legitimately incorporate opinion into news, and that is to quote a source saying something. The source has a right to be opinionated. However, if reporters only quote one side of an issue, the story is biased. They need to quote credible sources on both sides to balance the story. That doesn’t always happen, but the reader should be able to note that. They should ask, where is the information from the other side? News can be biased by citing sources from only one perspective.
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