Teaching students to evaluate sources–Part 1

A while back I addressed teaching for understanding. One of the issues I mentioned, but did not address, was the use and assessment of sources of information. Let’s see if I can address it now.

A few years ago, for reasons long lost in the mists of time, I had reason to look up “Detroit” in Wikipedia. Some wit had edited the page to say (roughly) “the name ‘Detroit’ comes from the French le détroit du lac Érié, which means ‘city ruined by Democrats and trade unions’.” Pretty funny stuff. And harmless too, since no one is likely to take it seriously. We hope.

You see, this is an easy call for an adult, even with no knowledge of French. That’s not how cities get their names. Can you expect a child to make the same call? Maybe not.

But what about something more difficult, more contentious. Send your 7th grade class to the internet to “research” global warming, and you’ll get a handful of nonsense. I googled “global warming” and got the following. (Try it yourself. Your results will depend on when you search and where you are searching from.)


So what is a 12-year-old to make of these search results? The top paid ad is from a not-for-profit environmental foundation. The second paid ad is for a film festival. Next we get Wikipedia—generally pretty good, but vulnerable to edits from anyone, anywhere. Then comes Forbes with a news article. First question for your student: are Wikipedia and Forbes trustworthy?

Wikipedia says

Global warming and climate change can both refer to the observed century-scale rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s climate system and its related effects, although climate change can also refer to any historic change in climate. Multiple lines of scientific evidence show that the climate system is warming.[2][3] More than 90% of the additional energy stored in the climate system since 1970 has gone into ocean warming; the remainder has melted ice, and warmed the continents and atmosphere.[4][a] Many of the observed changes since the 1950s are unprecedented over decades to millennia.[5]

The student might make some sense of this.

Forbes says

The most meaningful lesson from the unusually cold and snowy recent winters is that global warming is so minor as to be barely noticeable. When temperatures rise merely a fraction of one degree, the polar ice caps won’t melt, the oceanic conveyor belt will not shut down, alligators will not take up residence in Montana, cats will not start living with dogs, and winters will not suddenly disappear. We will still have very cold and snowy winters. We will still have hot summers. Your grandfather will still claim that to make it to school each day he walked barefoot through the snow, uphill each way.

That’s pretty unequivocal.

Left to her own resources, the student has no meaningful way to evaluate the two positions. Yet, from all the evidence I’ve see, teachers routinely expect students to do just that.

In the pre-internet days, teachers would make arrangements with the school librarian, who would “pull” relevant resources for the students to use. In this way, the teacher and librarian would make a decision on the students’ behalf on the trustworthiness and relevance of the materials. Students would focus their attention on reading, interpreting and representing this information. Frequently students would also consult other information, either from an outside library or their home resources. The teacher often would ask to see these resources before they were used in order to help the student use only relevant and helpful resources.

Reflecting on the situation I just described, it is clear that the purpose of such assignments was for the student to use relevant information; there was no attempt to teach students to do their own selection. This often did not occur until the student was older, perhaps in high school or later. So perhaps this leads to a promising idea. Instead of sending students out to the World Wide Web, restrict their choices beforehand. I think that’s a very promising idea. You can still use the strength of the internet, while mitigating some of the risk.

But the bigger issue is the development of discriminatory skills. How can you teach a child that Wikipedia is unstable and that Forbes is dishonest? There are simply too many unstable and dishonest sites for anyone to begin listing and categorizing them all.

Unfortunately, I have a bit of a time crunch. I’ll stop here and pick up the discussion when I come back.


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