Researchers behind an analysis of social media activity surrounding summer's Parliament protests fear there's been a "tectonic shift" in New Zealand's disinformation landscape – exposing many more Kiwis to bogus online content. Can we inoculate our kids against fake news before they encounter it? Science reporter Jamie Morton asked Professor Stuart McNaughton, the Ministry of Education's chief education scientific adviser.
To get started: how did the latest analysis on New Zealand disinformation strike you as someone sitting within the education world? What implications did you draw from it for learners today?
The Disinformation Project's analysis reinforces the urgent need for the education system to equip students with the skills they need to be resilient.
Back in 2014, you told me: "I really support the idea that we should be thinking about how to better teach science, and also how we can prepare children better about understanding and critically evaluating science in their everyday lives." What difference can teaching critical thinking and science literacy make toward fighting misinformation? And how far has New Zealand education come over the last decade here?
Teaching critical thinking and critical literacy in science could make a major difference.
We don't do a good enough job yet, but we know it is possible to make more of a difference.
The skills are teachable. They include more than the cognitive parts.
There are also the social and emotional skills required to be critically aware and engaged with others in-person and online; to be collaborative and able to take others' perspectives into account; and being empathetic, as well as self-regulating.
We need more than critical thinking and literacy in science: it's a need across the board.
A whole-of-school approach is needed where values and ways of doing things are espoused, modelled and upheld, with the school acting as a dynamic, supportive community.
Specific teaching of strategies, knowledge and self-regulation is needed too, along with the use of activities in class that support learning these skills, such as collaborative reasoning.
This must be done through teaching with the critical thinking and literacy skills embedded in all areas of the curriculum so they become generalisable - including in the more than 40 hours a week our 15 years olds spend on average accessing the internet in and out of school.
Lastly, and this has not been given enough research attention, is how do we best engage with whānau and family as active participants in school communities supporting children's development?
We are not alone in needing to respond better to the threats of mis, dis and malinformation.
Education systems across many countries don't teach the skills well.
We do have some good models and strengths on which to draw but we will need to guarantee consistently high quality and, very significantly, equitable success, in our educational response.
In English teaching our students are among the best in the world in learning about the consequences of making information public online, judging whether to trust information from the internet, or comparing different web pages and deciding the relevance of information.
Another strength is collaborative problem-solving in computer-based activities, where our 15-year-olds are among the best in the world.
There are schools [that] are putting each of the components I referred to earlier together very well.
We are in a privileged position in Aotearoa New Zealand to have fundamental concepts for thinking about the skills from te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori.
Māori researchers such as Melinda Webber and Angus Macfarlane are leading our collective understanding.
At the same time, would you say the root causes of misinformation can't alone be explained by a lack of critical thinking or education?
Education is only one part of a multi-pronged approach to deal with the root causes, and adds to the legislative and regulative changes and the national conversations, that the Disinformation Project highlights.
Basic human behaviours such as looking for evidence consistent with our beliefs, or the urge to belong to communities, mean we are all susceptible to misinformation.
The educational challenge is to provide skills that override or temper these.
But there is a positive side to this.
Critical thinking and literacy skills can add to our capabilities for learning from each other and developing positive citizenship skills, and to the role of communities as platforms for positive outcomes.
Are there any nations that New Zealand could look to as exemplars for infusing critical thinking into its curriculum? Finland – which teaches kids how to check facts and recognise fake news – appears to be a stand-out.
Finland is a good example for two reasons. One is through the curriculum and its broad scope, from the early years through to post-secondary.
Another is that there is research coming out of Finland on how to optimise teaching.
In addition, even though the international evidence is still developing, we can draw on research such as what has worked for promoting critical thinking and for the social and emotional skills in the non-digital environment.
Another source of research is what works to prevent and reduce cyberbullying.
At what years of learning do you think these efforts need to be really focused - and why?
Emerging forms of critical thinking and critical literacy are present from early on.
You can see them in interactions young children have with others within whānau and in early learning centres, and how, with guidance and well-designed programmes in early learning we can promote these early forms.
The great advantage we have is the framework for doing that exists, through the early childhood curriculum. But we need a life course approach.
That is one of the lessons from Finland.
The current curriculum "refresh" that the Ministry of Education/Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga is engaged in is a major opportunity for getting the focus you are asking for across schooling.
We can see this opportunity in the work on Aotearoa New Zealand's new histories curriculum.
Do you have concerns that the volume of mis, dis and malinformation that children are exposed to in today's tech-saturated environment will only worsen?
I am concerned that it is likely to worsen unless we have better filters and systems for regulating the content and access.
Unfortunately, the technology is rapidly developing and the Disinformation Report notes that the ways and means for creating, exaggerating and sustaining polluting messages and communities are becoming ever more sophisticated.
This is why the educational contribution is crucial.
What might be the potential risks and consequences of our classrooms ignoring science literacy and critical thinking altogether?
We know the risks, and there are disturbing examples of potential futures if we don't get this right.
Risks include increasing division, a polarisation of views to extremes that can lead to violence, and the undermining of human rights.
However, we have the potential to develop even more highly energised and engaged young people who, because of the reach and breadth of the digital worlds, are better able to think through the hard global and local issues with which we are increasingly faced.