Differentiating Fact and Opinion in Today's Information Overload
Teaching children to evaluate information is critical to differentiate between fact and opinion.
By Erin Bailey
What used to be a lesson for the elementary years will most certainly need to be extended into middle and high school. Learning to evaluate information will be more critical than ever as we are exposed to more of it. To start, it will be helpful for students to have a clear understanding of the definition of fact and how it differs from an opinion. In general, I consider myself a worthy judge when it comes to fact versus opinion:
- Opinion: “Teachers give way too much homework.”
- Fact: “Some children learn to read in kindergarten.”
- Opinion: “Eight a.m. is too early to start school.”
Like most teachers, I hit my students with this again and again, hoping the lesson will stick. After reading an article by Jon Swarts in the USA Today, I began to wonder how efficiently children will be able to sort facts from opinions given the flood of information that they face. In the article, Gmail product manager Paul McDonald is quoted as saying, “Americans now consume three times the information they did in 1960.”1 There is a difference, however, between consuming information and understanding it. It is easy to read and repeat without pausing to assign meaning. While teaching fact and opinion remains a staple skill in classrooms, how it is taught may need to be tweaked as we progress through the twenty-first century.
Verify with Evidence
Depending on the age of the learner, these definitions will change slightly. For a third or fourth grader, a simple definition of a fact is something that is said or done in the past or in the present. A fact can be verified with evidence.
- He walked the dog on Monday.
- He said, “I will walk the dog on Monday.”
At this age, an opinion can be described as a belief not shared by everyone.
- The dog is cute.
By middle school, students should recognize that facts cannot be wrong. On the flip side, an opinion is an assertion without evidence. Learners of this age can also comprehend that opinions are different from preferences. An example of a preference and an opinion is:
- I like Labradors better than poodles.
- Labradors are the best kind of dog.
By high school, the definition of a fact must take into account that a fact is not dependent upon who said it. Students will need to recognize that some facts can be verified while other facts may be more difficult to support with evidence. It might not be possible to know whether global warming is due to human activity or if it just a natural long-term cycle. Certainly there is factual evidence; however, we just don’t have access to it right now. What is knowable changes over time.
Gravity is a fact. The explanation of how gravity works is a theory. Many scientific principles are theories based on observations and known facts. However, these are subject to change as more evidence is collected.
Being able to apply these differences is key to analytical reading, writing, and listening, as well as to interpreting information. It is a skill that must be continually refined from elementary school up through college. Distinguishing between fact and opinion is important because opinions are often presented as facts, as in the case of political ads. When trying to make big decisions or solve complex problems, learners must be certain that they are working with evidence rather than emotions.
Social Media Influence
Because today’s children have grown up with the Internet, they tend to believe that whatever is found there is fact. The same is true for what they hear on television and the radio. One exercise to start them thinking about the topic is to have them make a list of where they can find facts for a research paper. Then have them make a list where opinions are commonly found. If their lists do not overlap, suggest some examples that will help illustrate this.
Another activity is to differentiate between parts of the newspaper that are factual and which are written from a subjective point of view. Clip articles from the weather page, the editorials section, an advice column, restaurant and book reviews, and the birth announcements. As they read, students should highlight facts and opinions in two different colors. Then have your class analyze advertisements.
Discerning between scholarly and non-scholarly sources is a skill that takes a lot of practice. A checklist that I have found helpful asks five questions.
1. What is the main purpose of the periodical?
If it reports on original research or experimentation, it is considered a scholarly source.
If its primary focus is to entertain, to sell a product, or to promote a point of view, it is considered non-scholarly.
2. Who is the intended audience?
Is it targeted at the general public or other scholars in the field?
3. How does the publication look?
Scholarly publications usually have a straightforward appearance. They are often supplemented by black and white graphs or chart. They have few photographs and fewer colorful advertisements.
Non-scholarly periodicals often have many illustrations, including photographs, and contain numerous ads.
4. Who published the journal?
Many scholarly journals are published by professional organizations or universities.
A commercial publisher usually issues popular periodicals.
5. Does the author cite sources in footnotes or bibliographies?
If the answer is yes, it is probably a scholarly journal since they always cite their sources.
Determining the credibility of sources is key to sorting facts from opinions. Since the Internet is rife with unreliable sources, special consideration should be given to finding the sites that end in ".edu," ".gov," and ".org" which are more trustworthy than ".com
1 Swarts,Jon, USA Today: “Social Media Users Grapple With Information Overload”, February 2, 2011.
An informative article where the author explores how fact and opinion can be studied in science. She discusses the differences between theories and hypotheses. She also points out the danger of bias in scientific experiments.
Learners read an engaging article about the possible harmful effects of television on children. Then they fill out a table which asks them to distinguish between facts and opinions.
Young children learn the difference between fact and opinion using a story about polar bears. Then they use the information to complete a sentence starter.