Media literacy for TOK?

Theory of Knowledge banner

Professional development for Theory of Knowledge teachers? February 6 is the last day for signing up for the current iteration of the course Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens. It’s an online course offered on It can be done fairly inexpensively for credit or audited for free (presumably without the February 6 sign-up). Me, I’ve cruised through its outline and preview materials, judged it good, and signed myself up to audit it for the next six weeks. Want to join me?

I’ve long been interested in media literacy and have dealt with aspects of it in Theory of Knowledge. However, the guidance I used to give students now seems to me to be woefully insufficient. How do we encourage students to evaluate sources and consider evidence when readily accessible channels of sharing knowledge have multiplied massively, when accurate information is often swamped by hasty misinformation, heavily biased accounts or deliberate lies, and when people following their own media streams tend to reject any contrary information offered by others?

The goals of Theory of Knowledge haven’t changed: an interest in the diversity of perspectives and a critical approach to the construction of knowledge. We care about knowledge claims in the academic disciplines and in the “wider world” (as the TOK aims put it) – how they are reached, how they are justified, how they are embedded in perspectives that give them meaning, and ultimately how they are appropriately evaluated for accuracy (even though the word “truth” has disappeared from the 2013 subject guide).

But the world around us has changed. We consume our information in different ways, and can be manipulated in different ways. We certainly need awareness of common fallacies of argument – the starting point when I entered TOK in days of yore. But we need awareness, too, of common cognitive biases, and the ways in which our own confirmation biases make the achievement of critical skills so much more difficult – and so much more important. And now I’d say we need a heightened awareness, in addition, of how responsible journalism differs from the sludge washing about in other channels, and how to identify reliable sources.

Can we teach Theory of Knowledge effectively without confronting these topics? In my opinion, no.

Our course aims to embrace both the academic disciplines and the “wider world”, whose knowledge flows in such large part through the media. But the academic disciplines and the wider world have never been independent from each other in any case. The context of the wider world influences topics taken for study, methods considered acceptable, social influences on interpretations, and ideological pressures on creators and researchers. The social context is obviously unavoidable in considering history as an area of knowledge, or the arts, or ethics. Moreover, the wilful misrepresentation of the natural sciences in the media has certainly increased over my adult life. Students cannot, these days, understand the nature, role, and significance of scientific knowledge without recognizing that “shared knowledge” comes with critical expectations within the sciences, but not necessarily within discussion of science in popular media. Even in trying to establish the characteristics of this area of knowledge, we cannot avoid dealing with the confusions that have been built around it – largely out of economic and political interests, deliberately.

The awareness and thinking skills that students need to understand the wider world and the academic disciplines, moreover, overlap considerably. Areas of knowledge develop, refine, and often formalize into methodologies the skills that are necessary to navigate the knowledge claims of everyday life. Whether we have sufficient experience or information for a sound judgment, whether we are conscious of our limitations, whether we have overcome our own biases enough not to be blocked in our thinking, whether we are open to others questioning and checking our conclusions – all these are issues in all the knowledge we build and share. Double blind studies, for instance, or insistence on replication of results: these are methods in areas of knowledge that refine our trying to think every day in a way that is open, clear, and fair. Expectations of peer review and scientific consensus: these refine our everyday desire to identify reliable sources, ones we can trust to give us knowledge.

In TOK we aim to “make connections between a critical approach to the construction of knowledge, the academic disciplines and the wider world.” As a critical approach to knowledge grows more challenging because of changes in the world around us, we have to develop our own capacities in response. Me, I’m off to work through this course on news literacy to see whether I can update my understanding and pick up some useful tips. What about you? Any suggestions on how else to deal with current challenges?

image: creative commons, Pixabay