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Published Essay on Algorithmic Literacy

By Luke Jacob, director of writing, communication and media literacy
Mr. Jacob published an essay in the Journal of Media Literacy on algorithmic literacy in Lower School.
Director of Writing, Communication and Media Literacy Luke Jacob’s essay, “Sowing the Seeds of Algorithmic Literacy: K-4 Practices for Studying If-Then Structures, Perspective, and Persuasion,” was published in the Journal of Media Literacy. Read a portion of the essay below.

Abstract: Even students too young to study algorithms or algorithmic bias per se can learn the habits of mind that will later help them to understand algorithms and to search out and identify bias. At La Jolla Country Day School, students in grades K-4 study if-then-else logic, perspective/point of view, and the difference between information and persuasion, all of which are necessary to the development of robust media literacy.

A kindergartner using ‘Scratch Junior’ block programming helps a digital cat navigate a maze and causes construction vehicles to dance across a digital stage. Three years later, she encounters a social studies curriculum in which she studies how and why a student’s dressing traditionally for a religious holiday differs from his wearing a costume, as she and her peers might do at Halloween. As a fourth grader, in an English/Language Arts unit about persuasive writing, she considers what genre of prose will be most effective for communicating with her chosen audience.

On the one hand, these endeavors take place in different curricular spaces, none of which is specifically labeled as “media literacy,” let alone as “the human algorithmic question.”

On the other hand, a student whose grades K-4 experience includes the units of study named above is learning the habits of mind necessary to recognize, evaluate, and respond to algorithmic bias when the time comes in her education to consider such questions.

Obviously, algorithmic bias per se only becomes a developmentally-appropriate topic of formal study at some given point in a young person’s educational journey. A teacher cannot, for example, ask a first-grade class, “In what ways might the algorithms that determine your social media feeds reflect baked-in racial bias?” And yet the ways of thinking that will prepare a student not just to understand such a question, but to be prepared to delve into answers to it, can be developed from the start of a child’s PK-12 education.

At La Jolla Country Day School (LJCDS), there are at least three key learning threads that help students toward this kind of understanding: algorithmic thinking regarding inputs and outputs in a system, including, but not limited to, coding per se; repeated forays into the realm of perspective/point of view; and studying of the concept and process of persuasion, and how persuading both differs from and overlaps with informing.

After all, a media literate citizen, ready not just to interact with but to interrogate the algorithms that have ever-growing influence in our daily lives, needs to understand how algorithms work, to be able to consider with empathy how machine learning affects not just herself but those around her, and to recognize when and how media artifacts and messages are striving to inform (to “tell”), and to persuade (to “sell”).

Read the rest of the essay on the International Council for Media Literacy website.


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