Critical Literacy: Teaching with Hoaxes

When I was first exposed to the “Internets” in fifth grade, I was given a stern warning to not only watch out for safety but also not to trust everything I read online. To illustrate this point, our Information Studies teacher pointed us to a website bemoaning the death of California’s Velcro Crop (see below). I think I took her words to heart, as I’ve learned to look at Internet content with a critical eye. Anything that doesn’t pass the “fishiness” test I don’t believe.

Yet in a 2006 study by the Naeg School of Education, every single seventh-grader in the study fell for a website about the fictitious Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (again, see below). When told that the site was indeed a hoax, the students had a hard time identifying clues why and some still insisted that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus did insist. In the world of Wikipedia and an user-generated content, critical literacy is a crucial skill to teach our students. Below, I’ve compiled a list of hoax websites that all seem to have a stake in legitimacy. How can you tell they are fake?

I provide these links for your amusement but also to discuss how hard it can be to spot these hoaxes. Some websites are obviously better hoaxes than others, but wouldn’t you usually trust a .org website such as for Dihydrogen Monoxide or a website as slick looking as RYT Hospital? The intentions of these sites may be educational, artistic or just for fun, and they certainly are not malicious. Yet they can be easily misconstrued by the uncritical reader.

So how do we exercise critical literacy? Certainly the old rules still apply: look at the dates, the url, and the source of the information. But I’d like to add one more thing: Google. If you’re not convinced of the legitimacy of a site, search for what other people are saying about it. Look for corroborating evidence. Chances are, if you’re skeptical, someone else was too.

via Thinking 2.0

-Sarah Zhang