Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Experts and Crazy People on the Internet: How to teach kids to tell the difference

The coelacanth is a prehistoric fish. It's cool because it was thought to be extinct, only to be re-discovered in 1938 and apparently just really good at hiding. In fourth grade I chose it for my animal report. I think I actually wanted to do my report on the zebra but I either lost out during the animal-choosing lottery or, more likely, I forgot to do the report and found an article on the coelacanth in a readily available encyclopedia. I probably chose it because it was short. Either way, my research consisted of an encyclopedia purchased by my family some number of years before I wrote the report. I might have had access to a National Geographic article as well. The research was easy. The greatest effort came in the form of physically writing (in cursive) my final report, using a pen, and trying to avoid errors that needed to be fixed with white-out.

Boy, have times changed. Googling coelacanth today results in 289,000 possible sites. The sites listed on the first page include: Wikipedia,, National Geographic, The Australian Museum, The Museum of Unnatural Mystery,, Sea and Sky, YouTube, The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and PBS in that order. Less than half of the results could be considered "expert" sources. The rest are questionable, either due to their lack of documentation, non-academic purpose and/or less-than-expert authorship. Most adults can quickly glance at the results and choose reliable sources. But what if the researcher is a fourth grader? What assumptions does he make? What does she look for when deciding what to click on? Does he even think about it?

Students who aren't thinking about where or who information is coming from, or don't have the skills to do so, are more likely to blindly land in the Internet equivalent of rotten milk. The pool of potential information gets even murkier if the topic is in any way controversial. So, to help young people navigate research projects and build good habits and skills, we need to give them concrete methods of making decisions, guide them toward good choices and, above all, keep them accountable for using the very best information they can find. We've discovered, through trial and error, that the best way to do this is to keep the guidelines simple and repeat them often. For major research projects at the Charles Wright Academy Middle School, I partner with teachers to plan, teach and evaluate. Students see the same person for multiple projects over three years and the result is that consistent strategies and accountability can be reinforced. The basic strategies include:
  1. Point students in the right direction to begin with.
    • Provide lists of recommended sources and explain why they are recommended.
    • Explain what is expected when it comes to choosing resources. If there are "no-go" sources, list them, but also give reasons why and alternatives. Teach the guidelines and then hold students accountable.
    • Set the bar high. Remind students that there is a difference between academic research and research for fun or personal interest. The sites they choose will and should be different depending on the situation.
  2. Check in frequently.
    • Meet with students daily to check progress and ask to view notes and sources. This is the best way to catch students who might be heading down the wrong research path before they get too far along and are discouraged by having to re-do lots of work.
    • Ask questions. Require students to explain how they have determined the reliability of a source and show them how to check if they aren't sure. At a minimum, students should be able to identify the author or sponsor of a web site. If they know that much, they can usually make an educated choice about whether to trust the information or not. If they are in doubt, they should "throw it out."
    • Expect students to take notes efficiently, without resorting to cut and paste methods. Cutting and pasting is a proven path to plagiarism, accidental or not. Read this post on plagiarism for more information.
  3. Hold students accountable for the choices they make.
    • Evaluate and grade the research process, including notes taken, sources chosen and effort. This keeps students accountable, but it also provides information about the process each student went through to create the final product and is very helpful in evaluating how well skills were taught and learned.
These strategies focus on what should be happening in school. If you are a parent, find out how your school is teaching these skills and reinforce them at home. If your child comes to you for help, ask him or her about expectations, requirements and recommended research sources.

Finding information is no longer the problem. Evaluating what we find for relevance, accuracy and bias is. Today's student researchers must use sophisticated skills to navigate the information available to them and we, parents and teachers, must show them how.

Last year we read a couple of articles published by the online magazine, The Edge. Every year it chooses a "Question of the Year." People from many countries, backgrounds and expertise take a stab at the question. nicely summarized one of the themes that developed in response to last year's question, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" in an article published in the London Times in January:
"The fundamental way we think has not changed, but the way we access information, and the sheer volume of that information, be it scintillating or spam, has altered in ways that are both inspiring and daunting. Chipping away the rotten wood is, perhaps, the most fundamental skill for the online brain: the discipline of allocating attention, filtering, questioning."
It's fantastic that anyone, anywhere can publish their thoughts, introduce ideas and report news. We can all contribute to the communal table of human knowledge. However, with this most excellent opportunity comes a responsibility to think before clicking, to question before assuming expertise and to double-check before forwarding that email warning of a new threat in our midst. We must explicitly teach these skills to young people and hold them accountable. Then, we can help them develop their own supremely tasty dish for the communal table of knowledge: a positive digital footprint (more on this soon!)

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