“Mermaids are real” (Critical thinking and the Internet)

I was reminded today why it’s so important to teach critical thinking skills and Internet savvy to our students, even the very young ones. A third grader told me she was having trouble finding nonfiction books about mermaids in my PreK-4 school library. I tried to direct her to chapter books or folktales with mermaids in them, but she wasn’t having any of that. “Mermaids are real,” she told me. “I’ve seen their bones.”

It was a great opportunity for a conversation. I asked her where she had found that information, and she told me she had Googled “real mermaids.” We tried it together and found lots of images and links from the Animal Planet website about mermaids, not clearly labeled as fiction. In fact, the bottom of the website says “Copyright © 2013 Discovery Communications, LLC. The World’s #1 Nonfiction Media Company.” I could see why she was confused! This kind of deceptively labeled fiction isn’t new (Dear America Diaries series, anyone? Which I just had a conversation with a student about last week…but that’s another story). But the difference is that, in the year 2013, a nine year old with home Internet access can find all kinds of misinformation and an adult may not always be nearby as a fact checker. That’s why it’s so crucial for students to learn to be critical thinkers and thoughtful media consumers at an early age. They need to be able to ask, does this information agree with my background knowledge? Who are the people making these claims? And for sure they need to see some examples of hoax sites so they realize how easy it is to make up convincing-looking stuff and post it online.

As part of our conversation, my student and I looked at the excellent teaching hoax site The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. If we’d had more time we might have also looked at allaboutexplorers.com (highlight: Samuel de Champlain owned an NHL hockey franchise) or The Jackalope Conspiracy website (best claim: the ancients called them “deerbunnies”). We talked a little about who can put information on the Internet (Anyone!) and why someone might put misinformation online. And then we found some great chapter books with mermaids in them.

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