Wednesday, June 5, 2019

School Librarians Can Save Democracy

This year, I had the extraordinary experience of attending the TED conference in Vancouver. I was inspired. Truly. This is my response to one of the running themes of the conference. 

At TED2019, reporter and feature writer for the Observer, Carole Cadwalladr, told tech billionaires - calling out each one by name - they had broken democracy in Facebook's Role in Brexit -- and the Threat to Democracy (Cadwalladr, 2019). Her talk left a rippling undercurrent that coursed through the rest of the conference. Is democracy in jeopardy? If so, what role does social media play in the crisis?

When Carole finished, I leapt out of my seat with the rest of the audience and cheered. It was an emotional response. This is the new normal: social media companies profit off of our attention, relying on our emotional triggers to keep us swiping for a date, a couch, a rescue pet, and certainly for news - including, of course, fake news and alternative facts. We choose to believe some stories over others, but the choice is too often an emotional one. Placing our stamp of approval or rejection on our discoveries - participating in an ever-growing culture of outrage - is emotionally empowering, and we are hooked.

Two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media channels (Matsa & Shearer, 2018) and while 57% of those folks expect the news they see on social media to be inaccurate, 42% think it is "largely accurate" (Shearer & Gottfried, 2017).

Fifty-six percent of college students said that they accessed news for their personal consumption (as opposed to academic use) via social media. These students reported that they applied different source evaluation strategies to news content accessed through social media channels than they do to news accessed via their college library's periodical databases (Head, Whibey, Metaxas, MacMillan, &  Cohen, 2018).

Confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories, may play a role in media consumers' ability to evaluate the news they access online. According to British academics of psychology, Ben Tappin, Leslie Van Der Leer and Ryan Mckay, "Confirmation bias is often conflated with 'telling people what they want to hear,' which is actually a distinct phenomenon known as desirability bias, or the tendency to credit information you want to believe." They conducted an experiment hoping to learn "whether a reluctance to revise political beliefs was a result of confirmation bias or desirability bias (or both)." Their results "suggest that political belief polarization may emerge because of peoples’ conflicting desires, not their conflicting beliefs per se." (Tappin, Van Der Leer, & Mckay, 2017)

National Public Radio's On The Media host Brooke Gladstone summed this up succinctly, "Confirmation bias has nothing to do with thinking and everything to do with feeling." (Gladstone, 2018).

The Pew Research Center reports that political polarization is on the rise, "Partisan antipathy remains extensive. The shares of Republicans and Democrats who express very unfavorable opinions of the opposing party have increased dramatically since the 1990s." (Pew, 2017). Antipathy is a feeling. It is emotional. This antipathy manifests itself at the polls. When citizens seek emotional gratification from the news they read, they view political candidates as personalities who stand for, or against their political team. Political consultant and pollster, Frank Luntz - whose TED2019 talk followed Cadwalladr's - said, "Populism is a great way to get elected, and it is a horrible way to govern.” Great personalities are not by default great leaders (Luntz, 2019).

When Carole's spell broke and I gained some perspective, I started to push back. I am not expert enough to gauge whether social media has led us to a democratic crisis, but teaching inquiry to high school students for nearly two decades lends me sufficient expertise to know that education can remedy a crisis of democracy.

Calling on Silicon Valley tech moguls to curb their capitalistic motives in order to protect democratic principles is unrealistic. Call me a cynic, but it just ain't gonna happen. Teaching the citizens of tomorrow to consume news with skepticism is a more realistic strategy to safeguard democracy.

The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) affirmed this in 2016 when they published the results of a two-year study on young people's (middle school through college) ability to evaluate online information. They summarized their findings this way:

Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish (Stanford History Education Group, 2016).

Here is the rub: who is going to teach this?

Classroom teachers have prescribed content to teach. Assuming that all teachers in all schools will enthusiastically embrace yet another instructional mandate is... well... just as unrealistic as expecting Mark Zuckerberg to redesign Facebook because Carole Cadwalladr told him to. As it is, classroom teachers are struggling to stay afloat. Teaching is really hard work. The data confirms my claim. Teacher attrition has been a problem for nearly two decades. The Learning Policy Institute describes the problem in its 2016 report, Solving the Teacher Shortage: How to Attract and Retain Excellent Educators, "national estimates suggest that between 19% and 30% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years, with turnover much higher in low-income schools." (Podolsky, Kini, Bishop, & Darling-Hammond, 2016).

If teachers aren't in a position to embed lessons that teach learners to read and think critically about the news they consume with logic and a dose of healthy skepticism rather than emotions, who can?

School librarians have the training and expertise to teach precisely this. They have the pedagogy, classroom management skills, content knowledge and technical know-how to co-develop and co-teach engaging and authentic inquiry driven project-based experiences for every student in their learning community. In the right environment, they can partner with classroom teachers to embed news literacy across grade levels and content areas.

School librarians teach kids to learn how to learn.

School librarians teach inquiry. They teach students how to formulate questions, then to question the information they select to answer their questions. They teach students to infer author purpose through word choice analysis, to distinguish opinion writing from reportage, and to select information sources critically. They teach students how to process information with skepticism. I know this because I live it. In 2017, my friend and colleague Jacquelyn Whiting and I pooled our cache of lessons together to create our book of replicable inquiry lessons, News Literacy: The Keys to Combating Fake News.

School librarians teach every single student in the building(s) they serve. As an experiment, I tracked my time usage over a 35-40 day period for three consecutive years and I discovered that I spend over 80% of my school day helping students develop these inquiry skills - skills that safeguard the future of democracy (blue slices in graph below) .

Librarian time spent teaching

Unfortunately, school librarians are frequently first in the line of fire when school leaders decide to eliminate instructional positions. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) does not have data on this, but I did a quick, informal survey in my home state of Connecticut, which has the the highest per capita income of any state in the union (Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2018). Survey results indicated that a total of 197 Connecticut school library positions have been eliminated since 2000. If this is the inquiry infrastructure in Connecticut schools,  I am left wondering how learners are being taught inquiry skills in states with less funding.  Will learners from these communities blindly scroll through their social media feeds to learn about political candidates and take their emotionally-formed impressions to the polls?

School librarians provide a feasible and thoughtful solution to a universal concern. Given the opportunity to do their job, they can ensure the future of democracy, regardless of what social media feeds deliver. Here is the uncut version of my idea pitch (1:34 minutes).

Bureau of Economic Statistics. (2018). Per capita personal income in the United States in 2018, by state (in U.S. Dollars). Retrieved June 5, 2019, from
Cadwalladr, C. (2019, April 15). Facebook's role in Brexit -- and the threat to democracy. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from
Gladstone, B. (2018, September 28). Your moment of Zen. Retrieved from
Head, A., Whibey, J., Metaxas, P. T., MacMillan, M., & Cohen, D. (2018, October). How students engage with the news: Five takeaways for educators journalists and librarians. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from
Luntz, F. (2019, April 15). TED2019: Bigger than us - session 1: Truth. Retrieved from
Matsa, K. E., & Shearer, E. (2018, September 21). News use across social media platforms 2018. Retrieved from
Pew Research Center. (2017, October 5). Partisan animosity, personal politics, and views of Trump. Retrieved from
Podolsky, A., Kini, T., Bishop, J., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2016, September). Solving the teacher shortage how to attract and retain excellent educators. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from
Shearer, E., & Gottfried, J. (2017, September 7). New use across social media platforms 2017. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from>
Tappin, B., Van Der Leer, L., & Mckay, R. (2017, May 27). You're not going to change your mind. The New York Times. Retrieved from>


  1. Brilliant, Michelle. Thank you for your thoughtful, well-reasoned, and powerfully conveyed message.

  2. This looks amazing! As a school librarian who believes in teaching students to think for themselves -- both online and off -- I am dying to see the entire talk!

  3. Thank you, Michelle! Just thank you! Can’t wait to see the whole talk!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Thank you for your insight. I agree with much of what you post. I teach in higher education LIS at the baccalaureate level and have taught middle school, high school, and graduate level. The biggest challenge I see today is getting students to understand the impacts of being not being an informed information consumer. The education needs to start as soon as they start school and continue the rest of their lives. There is no such thing as an expert in information any longer because there is too much out there. I've spent nearly 40 years in the profession and I think I can safely say that I am an expert in what I do not know.

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