FactCheckEd.org: Teaching the Art of Persuasion
The 2008 election cycle provides us with an excellent opportunity for students to improve their media literacy by examining political messaging and the persuasive arts. So if you’re shopping around for lesson plans, look no further than FactCheckEd.org.
I’m the first to admit it - I’m a sucker for a good argument. Heck, I literally majored in it. People still snicker when I tell them I have a BS in rhetoric. (Feel free to take a moment and insert your own joke here.) Semester after semester, I’d get to play skeptic, dissecting the intricacies of all sorts of packaged messaging, from board games to war propaganda to political advertising campaigns. Of course, not everyone needs to do these activities full-time in order to get a better handle on how messages are crafted. With a little practice, it’s possible to build up a handy arsenal of techniques to sense when someone’s trying to manipulate you and when they’re not.
The Internet has made these skills more important than ever. Thanks to the broad spectrum of Web 2.0 tools available nowadays, anyone can put together their own media. The power to persuade others has been democratized, and that’s a good thing - but it also gives us the responsibility to be better prepared for handling it. Election years are always ripe with opportunities to dissect the art of persuasion, but it goes well beyond that, since we experience advertising and other types of messaging on a constant basis.
That’s why I’m utterly fascinated by the lesson plans published on the website FactCheckEd.org. Published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Fact Check initiative, FactCheckEd.org is a treasure trove of lesson plans and resources to help students - and the rest of us, frankly - get a better handle on when we’re being manipulated. They’re nonpartisan in their approach; for example, they offer lesson plans showing how politicians on both side of the aisle have had their positions misrepresented by their opponents, or when they’ve used rhetoric to make proclamations that sound powerful but don’t stand up to scrutiny. They also offer educational tools to pick apart the arguments used in advertising campaigns, from Listerine to Hoodia weight loss products.
Along with lesson plans based on specific case studies, the site includes more general lessons on the art of persuasion, including building a better argument, deductive vs. inductive reasoning and logical fallacies. There’s also a comprehensive list of data sources that can be used to cross-check claims, contrasting neutral sources of information with potentially biased sources. They’ve also set up a faculty lounge discussion forum, though unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be particularly active.
Most of the lesson plans are designed for offline activities in the classroom, but they could easily be translated to online media activities, with students applying the skills they’ve gained to examining online videos or email campaigns. It would be particularly interesting to see the lesson plans adapted in conjunction with multimedia training, so students could learn various persuasion techniques by creating their own online media, like student-generated political ads in which they’re challenged to produce messages for competing candidates. -andy