How To Undo the Backfire Effect with Next-Gen Students

Students using technology

I want my students to think about big ideas. Questions like “Why do people join gangs?” or “Which is more important for success, hard work or talent?” get students thinking and discussing topics that matter. But here’s another goal I have when I task them with writing about and discuss those big ideas: I want my students to learn how to be wrong.

The viral spread of fake news has been written about a lot recently, but there is another phenomenon at play here–often called “the backfire effect.” It has been proven in various studies, and the basic premise is this: When people are confronted with facts that dispute their already-held beliefs, they actually believe more strongly, not less.

It’s not easy to change your beliefs on a topic, but it is possible, especially with teenagers. This is one of the main reason why I like teaching high school. Though many kids start off just parroting their parents’ thoughts, they can be taught to develop their own beliefs.

These are my strategies to undo the backfire effect with today’s students:

Teach them to always, always start with the evidence. Often students are taught to start off by writing their thesis and then to look for evidence to back it up. I despise this format. Instead—such as in this unit, for example—it is good for students to first read about and research a topic, and then write an argumentative essay based on what they have found. Teaching students to stick to an idea that doesn’t work makes for bad essays. More importantly, though, teaching students that the idea comes before the evidence entrenches bad habits about how to formulate opinions and beliefs.

Expose students to multiple points of view.  One of the other elements that contributes to the backfire effect is the echo-chamber effect. The idea is that as people become more and more entrenched in an idea, they are more and more likely to only listen to those who share their views. This might take the form of unfollowing or unfriending people on Facebook or of only reading certain periodicals, or simply of being a victim of social media algorithms.

So I make sure to expose my students to literature that has more than one point of view on a topic. One character might believe that gangs are the answer to the isolation that they feel in life, another might believe that gangs are a way of connecting to family, and still another might believe that gangs are destructive and damaging. We look at all of those ideas, and talk about how they can all be both correct and incorrect at the same time.

Disconnect from the emotional baggage. Another reason people hold onto their false beliefs even in the face of disproving evidence is because they have attached strong feelings to their beliefs, usually anger or sadness or outrage. And again, this is where literature comes into play.

Another great thing about reading texts together is that it gives us a way to talk about experiences and points of view without our own emotional baggage. Yes, we can bring our own life events to our understanding of the text, but we are more likely to let go of our biases and look at ideas in an objective way when we are examining someone else’s story.

Stop the us-vs.-them dynamic. When we generalize about other people, we are more likely to entrench ourselves in damaging ideas. One of my other goals as a teacher is to expose my students to as many times and places as I can. When they see what they have in common with a girl growing up in Antigua in the 1950s or a servant in 17th-century England, they are less likely to see the world as full of people who are different from them and antagonistic to their beliefs, and they are more likely to think about how they can learn from others who seem to be different from them.

Even better, I get them out there to talk to people who don’t look like them or who haven’t grown up in the same way that they have–a little face-to-face communication goes a long way. When students have structured projects that involve interviews or exchanges, such as I-Search papers or research projects, they get out of their bubble and realize that others have lives that are both very similar and very different from theirs. All this helps them to rethink ideas that they had seen as set in stone.

Model how to be wrong. I am wrong all the time, and often it is my students who will show me my errors. But I don’t make a big deal out of it. If anything, I intend to show them how great it is to learn from mistakes or assumptions or misunderstandings. I let them know when I am wrong, and I show them that it doesn’t make me weak to admit it.

I admit that I get a little scared when I read about fake news or students’ inabilities to detect a false story, but I also know that I am doing what I can to create a generation of thinkers. If nothing else, I can show them that being wrong is fine, that it happens to the best of us, and that we will never really learn anything if we don’t make mistakes.

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Christina Gil

Christina Lovdal Gil is a former classroom teacher, current homeschool teacher and an education blogger.

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