Teaching Students About Confirmation Bias

Concerns about the impact of fake news are actually concerns about learning to know. That’s why teaching about confirmation bias is imperative.

Editor’s note: This post is part two of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, hereFind part three, a window into a classroom discussion on trust and knowledge, here. Find part four, a review of how students learn how to know (epistemological development) here. Find part five, a discussion of skepticism and bias, here. Find part six, an argument for teaching about diverse ideologies and perspectives, here.

“Everyone's all about the fake news (which is important to tackle critically) but who's talking about preparing youth for the REAL news?”
—Maha Bali, associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, via Twitter

Have you ever noticed the high-altitude instructions on a box of brownie or cake mix that tell you to change the ingredients slightly to account for atmospheric differences? To me, this is what teaching in the current moment feels like: We are still making brownies, but we have to adjust the recipe just a bit to account for the atmospheric changes of the so-called “post-truth era.” The previous entry in this series sought to help educators understand the array of key terms necessary for teaching students how to know in the contemporary media landscape—the atmospheric changes, to continue the metaphor. But even if teachers understand these terms generally, bringing them into the classroom meaningfully is indeed challenging.

Teachers, many with great skill and expertise, have been helping students learn to separate fact from fiction, identify bias and opinion, and practice critical thinking since well before the recent rise of fake news and echo chambers. The atmosphere is now different, but we are still baking brownies.  

Of all the terms I described in the previous entry, confirmation bias is perhaps most accessible for students. It’s also a good starting place for teachers looking to teach their students how to know in this new knowledge landscape. Teaching about this term in a non-political context is essential for avoiding partisan defensiveness. It’s also a lot of fun.

As a quick refresher, confirmation bias refers to our tendency to more readily believe information that supports—or confirms—our existing worldviews and to exclude information that might contradict previously held assumptions.

In preparing to teach about confirmation bias, choose a topic about which you know students will have a range of deeply held opinions. Here in New England, the cheating accusations against the NFL’s New England Patriots serve up a perfect test case. First, I asked students to indicate whether they were fans of the team (to find out how partisan they are). We then discussed the allegations that the Patriots cheated, with the more strident fans growing increasingly defensive. (Students were excited to find out later that prominent researchers have studied this example.) We then reflected on why it’s challenging to accept evidence that doesn’t fit with our worldviews. Students noted that no one likes to be wrong, that their identity as fans of the team took a hit if they acknowledged any cheating, and that evidence is rarely as clear-cut as those on any side of an argument would prefer.

Then we switched gears and started working on a fairly standard essay on the Industrial Revolution. Students first combed through several sources selected to include a variety of perspectives on whether the Industrial Revolution was a positive or negative experience for the United States. As students sifted through this evidence, we referred back to our conversation about the Patriots. Students immediately saw the connection, noting the importance of being skeptical of one’s own ideas and letting the evidence, not pre-existing viewpoints, convince them. And because they had a thorough grounding in actual historical facts, they were able to grapple with the meaning of those facts and how much value to place on different pieces of evidence. They were then free to start laying out their arguments. In their conversations with one another and with me, they thought through counterarguments and responses to those counterarguments, strengthening their thinking in the process. 

Students submitted their essays, and we had some time to informally debate in class. But in the informal debate, students could argue for or against the theses in their own and classmates’ essays. This is a classic history class exercise, but because students had been primed to think about confirmation bias, they were even more adept than usual at scrutinizing and poking holes in their own and others’ arguments.

In the weeks since that unit ended, students have referred to these ideas whenever we’re in discussion, encouraging one another to re-examine their evidence and stay skeptical about their own viewpoints. We’ve discussed Manifest Destiny, for example, and looked at the ways the desire to see the United States’ history in a positive light can make it harder for some to learn­ and acknowledge the atrocities committed against American Indians and to recognize this history of “expansion” as colonization. Students were eager to see this as an example of confirmation bias.

Investigating confirmation bias isn’t tangential to the curricula. Fake news gets significant airtime right now in a time of partisanship, political polarization and declining confidence in the media. Still, concerns about the impact of fake news are actually concerns about learning to know. Through the work of cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, we understand more about how we know, and we teachers need to use that understanding in our classes. Equipped with even a cursory understanding, students can become more aware of how they form their thoughts, how to build knowledge and how to cultivate skepticism.

After all, the best way to teach students to avoid what’s fake is to help them learn how to understand what’s real.

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.