They Don’t Get It, We Can Help

Each year I spend the first couple weeks of my college prep world history classes looking at why history is important and the process of creating histories. During my Evaluating Evidence lesson I set up a criteria that historians and students need to consider when using a source. I really focused on point of view and bias. Then I started talking about the Internet. Our students now turn to the Internet for information first; few make special trips to the library to find something out. As I started talking about having to be very critical of the sources we find online, I got a lot of blank stares.

I started getting concerned, so I conduct a quick, informal survey (which I would repeat with my two other college prep classes). The results struck a cord. Most claim they don’t consider the source. If it shows up in Google, they are good to go. I mentioned the Martin Luther King, Junior page that use to show up in the top ten of Google searches on MLK which was really a skewed attack clandestinely sponsored by a white supremacist group (I believe Alan November used this example for a while). They were a bit shocked.

As this conversation developed in my first class, I decided that I would take them over to Wikipedia. About half of the students had been to Wikipedia, but only a handful actually understood it. Several mentioned that it was a cool place to easily get information. One person across three classes claimed he had contributed. When I clicked on the edit this page tab, I saw mouths drop open.

“You mean anyone can edit it?”
“Can you change it now?”
“Wait, it only changes it on your computer, right?”

The history tab (where you can see the past changes) surprised almost everyone. They have a good concept of creating content on the web (no doubt many of them have a MySpace account), but they were having trouble wrapping their head around the central concept of Wikipedia and wikis in general. When we got back to our discussion on evaluating evidence and examining information for validity, they seemed to get it a little more. We will certainly work on it all year.

It seems like no really owns teaching these skills. Who should do it? English teachers? Social studies? Technology classes? Everyone? I’m sure there are schools and districts that have made the effort and passed the policies to incorporated them, but I am betting a vast majority do not. We already have too much to cover and do. Throw in the issues I discussed in an earlier post and the problem becomes even more complex. It seems like technology is evolving so fast that education simply can’t keep up.

Perhaps, like wikis and blogs, it has to be bottom up. Squeeze it in between lessons or build a skill builder into an existing unit. They don’t get it. I can help my students. Can you help yours?

8 thoughts on “They Don’t Get It, We Can Help”

  1. Great post. You know the old adage I’m sure….if it’s in print it’s true, right? I think one of the best things we can do as history teachers is teach point of view.

    As far as who needs to teach evaluating sources I think it falls to everyone, but unfortunately so many of our colleages are woefully behind with using technology themselves. If they aren’t comfortable with it they won’t incorporate it into their lessons.


  2. This strikes to the very heart of what is missing in education today. With the standards and tests that go along with them driving everything we do, we’ve forgoten to teach the critical thinking skills that make it unnescessary to teach every single fact. Give the kids the tools, they will be able to find the facts.
    I try to incorporate technology into my instruction as much as possible, including the technology the students have already become familiar with on their own. Wikipedia is not a bad thing, in fact I would consider an excellent start for any research project. The students need to learn that it is just that, a starting place, not the end.


  3. My students, even my graduate students, don’t understand when I tell them they cannot cite Wikipedia in the bibliography of a research paper. I have to explain why; then I explain how to evaluate a Wikipedia article–if it’s a valid article, the sources are all linked, and these are probably the items they need to cite. They are uncritical and really do think that if it’s online in a formal structure, it must be true.


  4. The worst part is that the students you have are just the tip of the iceberg. In high-level high school debate and in good collegiate forensics programs one learns to evaluate data sources on a number of different criteria. There is some of that hard-knocks education for science graduate students, too.

    But few others get it. One of the toughest jobs I had staffing Congress was telling the member why the “fact” he had just asked me to turn into a public speech, committee investigation or law was wrong, or wrongly interpreted.

    Similarly, in the business world we get a lot of people who don’t know how to read their own financial statements, and who think their company is doing well when it’s really headed into the tank.

    Data integrity is a difficult concept to grasp, until the stakes get higher, and even then many don’t.


  5. I recently, within 3 years, discovered the whole world of Wikipedia. At first, I looked at it as version of something similar to Mircosoft Encarta, full of useful information. When I first used it for my research papers, my teachers never questioned it credibility, probably because they might have not of known about it and thought the same as me, it being similar to an encyclopedia. More recently, my teachers have protested the use of Wikipedia because it is not a creditable resource. I don’t believe people should be strictly forbidden to use the website but people should be careful how they use it. Now that I know how Wikipedia receives its information, I agree with my teachers, students should not use it as a reliable source, but it is good to use allowing students to gain ideas when writing a paper.


  6. I had a professor in school that referred us to a website that was supposed to be an excellent reference source on the life of Oliver Cromwell. I knew a little about him and the period before researching, so was surprised to hit this page of information. The teacher had proposed this site as an excellent source of information, so I had to reread the information a couple of times. I finally decided, on my own, that this had to be a joke. I later found out that it was an attempt by the web site author to stop wholesale plagiarism of his work. The site has changed a great deal in the past ten years, and no longer even pretends to be authoritative on the subject of Cromwell. Needless to say, Crom Fu has taken a life of its own within my circle of friends.
    My point in bringing this up is that it is not just Wikipedia, but many sources on the web, and for that matter elsewhere, which are biased to a certain viewpoint or out and out posit information that is incorrect for their own purposes (i.e. In my opinion, it is important that we, as teachers, focus on critical thinking skills, and ask students to practice it in class. As Dan has stated elsewhere in his blog, unless they are on a game show, most of the historical facts we are imparting are not going to prove worthwhile in their lives, but the cognitive skills we give them will make a big difference. Learning to judge the validity of sources and take into account their biases is a huge part of that, and is needed regardless of the source. These broad based critical skills should not only be a part of the curriculum, but should be a major underlying foundation of it, because it is needed in whatever career or field students intend to pursue.


  7. It is interesting that I would run across this blog posting at this moment in time. I am a college student that has returned to acquire another degree in a different field and this semester is the first time I have been exposed to the true validity of internet resources in a class setting. Previously I would have to take the time to research the sources that had created the page in order to check the validity. Due to my recent exposure in a class I am taking I have learned the language of the internet. This has allowed me to search for legitimate information in a faster manner. The advancement of search engines such as Google has increased the difficult to find the “truth” when surfing for information over the web. I have searched many pages that are pure propaganda or have been written by an unaccredited source. In order to write a proper paper and due correct research we must inform all levels of the student population to this problem. In my opinion the English departments of schools should take an active role in stomping out this problem. The reason I state it is the English department’s role is due to the current structure of our school system. In an English class students are exposed to the proper ways to construct items such as papers, bibliography, and source pages therefore they should address this issue also. This is only my initial idea of where to start working on this misinformation. The area of technology could also address this issue. We must take this seriously for if we do not our students will be absorbing incorrect data and will come to conclusions based on that information. I am glad to see others in the educational field addressing this issue for it took too long in regards to my personal experience. I have stated my problems with others about the adaptation of technology in schools and this fits into my opinion. I think it is important for the teachers to adapt to new technology and not adapt technology to their teaching styles. We in the educational field must be willing to change with technology and not change technology to fit us.


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