on SIFTing, SIFTing, and SIFTing…

I’m feeling a little self-conscious about the how much I know I have become “one-note Davey” when it comes to talking about what we’re focusing on instructionally in the information literacy, media literacy, research instruction space. To be completely honest it is literally almost all we’ve done instructionally since we started our ’21-’22 school year in the second week of August.

Apologies in advance if you’ve read previous things I’ve shared about Michael Caulfield’s SIFT methodology for checking online sources. If you have, you might want to skip down a few paragraphs.

What is SIFT?Michael Caulfield, Director of Blended and Networked Learning at Washington State University Vancouver, developed a magically simple four-step process for quickly evaluating and contextualizing online sources. The SIFT method, takes techniques and strategies commonly used by professional fact checkers and puts them together in a format simple enough that my 9th graders to learn and successfully apply in a 45-60 minute stand-alone lesson!

Never Waste a Good Crisis – Misinformation/Disinformation has always been with us, but events and the discourse of the last few years seems to have made teachers i work with acutely aware of the need to explicitly teach students skills, strategies, and dispositions needed to discern reputable sources from their less reputable cousins. Living in a new golden age of misinformation isn’t exactly something any of us would wish for but the reality on the ground is that, this is where we are so as librarians it would be a tragedy to waste a crisis foisted upon us.

During the first week of school, I sent versions of the following email to every teacher in our science department.

For the time being SIFT has, temporarily, become the entirety of our high school research curriculum. We have now introduced SIFT to almost every 9th grader through their science classes, and we’ve also had a chance to introduce SIFT to 6 or 7 jr/sr science classes as well (we piloted SIFT for the first time at the end of last year so our older students never got it). If you are just beginning your school year, DON’T WAIT!!!! Approach your science teachers before they get too deep into their content! The storm of misinformation around vaccines and masking has made science teachers very willing partners on infolit instruction! We’ve also found that working with these classes on SIFT has helped us to start collaborative conversations with teachers on other projects and skills they’d like to work together on!

Science teacher: “I really wish our kids could learn APA for science. Why do we have to use MLA?”

Me: “Uh… We don’t only have to use MLA! Nobody ever asked. LET’S DO IT!”

Science teacher: “And when we do that, can you help us with how to use databases?”

What Does all this SIFTing Instruction Look Like? – I use 4 introductory videos that Michael Caulfield created for CIVIX, a non-partisan group based in Canada, and posted to the Ctrl-F channel on Youtube. They’re embedded in a Libguides page and we watch the first two (very short) videos. We give students a sample sources to SIFT and simply have students try the strategies and techniques that have been introduced. When student(s) come to a conclusion we debrief and share the methods and strategies the students tried that helped them find success.

When it seems like the class is comfortable with the tools and strategies, we watch the second two videos and continue with practice samples.

Keep if Fast. Keep it Simple! – The sample sources that we have kids SIFT are meant to be easy to investigate, but I’ve tried to pick examples of sources that let us raise issues and strategies that I want kids to remember.

This sample using the publication Undark is a good starting point that says, “See, you can do this. It’s easy and it’s fast, but it works so it’s worth the investment of 90 seconds BEFORE you read the article!”

This sample using Goop allows us to talk about expertise. “So Gwyneth Paltrow is an Academy Award winning actor, if you were looking for information about becoming a successful actor would she probably be a well qualified source? Does expertise apply across different fields or domains? What do you think of this?”

Interestingly, I’ve had three different students talk about Dr. Fauci being an expert in diseases and vaccines, but maybe not baseball… Hahaha!!!

Being Transparent and a Little Humble Doesn’t Hurt – In the midst of teaching this lesson news broke about the owner of the Snopes site admitting to committing plagiarism. As Michael Caulfield recommends Snopes as a source for reliable, fact-checking, I decided to bring the issue up head on and have honest conversations with students about citation, attribution, and trust. I tell them honestly that I still use and trust Snopes because I have a long history with the site and I’ve checked enough of their stories over time that continue to believe in the integrity of their work as a whole, yet it is frustrating that i now feel the need to have this conversation with students when talking about using Snopes–and that if they don’t feel comfortable with the recommendation that, that is very legitimate and they should use other sites instead.

When students look at the Wikipedia article on the New York Post, they tend to conclude that it is a less than credible tabloid and therefore the story itself must be misinformation. I find that this is a good opportunity to show students the Google News tab where they quickly see that multiple news outlets that they know have reported the same story. This allows us to talk about how the SIFT process often actually doesn’t give us a black and white answer and THAT’S OK because what we are actually seeking as we SIFT is how to place this source IN CONTEXT. Understanding and using what a source has to offer in an appropriate context is also why we typically don’t want to rely too heavily on any single source.

SIFT is a Start, Not an End — Our juniors and seniors pick up on SIFT very quickly. We do some of the same exercises and cover the same ground as with our 9th graders, but with the juniors and seniors we use it as an opportunity to point out how better online journalism or open web sources typically link to the scholarly work that supports claims being made. “Trace those sources as close to their original context as you can get and typically try to cite the source that is the furthest up the chain.”

Reception from Kids — Feedback from students has been amazingly positive. Where there used to be a lot of frustrated eye rolling and heavy sighing from the last row (and sometimes the middle and first rows, too. LOL!!!). I’ve had students tell me, “I can use this!” As I see it, we can teach perfect techniques and strategies for source evaluation, citation, and annotation, but if kids just won’t use them unless they’re coerced to do so for points, we’re not really teaching source evaluation for a real world and for kids’ real lives.

When they leave us as graduates, I want my kids to have the information literacy knowledge, skills, dispositions, and habits necessary for them to thrive in a world of networked information.

  • How do I weigh the risks and benefits of a vaccine?
  • What are the costs and benefits of this policy on greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Is this policy change likely to do what its proponents say it will do and whose hypothesis is more likely to be correct based on their experience and/or expertise?
  • Which candidate running in the next election is most likely to represent the positions that I value?

In the highly complex world of networked information that we now finder ourselves navigating, two of the most valuable “commodities” individuals have to invest are our attention and our trust. Until recently, I feel like I haven’t been able to find a way to very effectively help students understand how to discern where and how to invest their attention and their trust. With our work on SIFT I am starting to feel like the pieces are coming together. We certainly have a way to go, but SIFT feels, to me, like we’ve taken a solid first step in the right direction! I hope you’ll give it some consideration in the work that you’re doing!

Happy new school year, everyone!

3 thoughts on “on SIFTing, SIFTing, and SIFTing…

  1. Great ideas here! We have been using SIFT with 9th grade for the past few years and I also see the kids responding well to some of the techniques and asking great questions for follow up. We also started using NewsGuard (via Turnitin) as another tool for “Investigate the Source”, along with Wikipedia. I hope to incorporate some of your ideas with our older students too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. David, you have perfect timing as I am planning a SIFT lesson with my middle school any day now. Your perspectives and tips will really help. Thank you!

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