on the long road to understanding “truth”…

Last month I blogged about introducing our faculty to a source evaluation strategy that we hoped was easy and nimble enough that they might actually employ it with kids — on growing information literate humans… We asked faculty to beta test our initial 4-move process and to suggest ways to make the process more applicable and/or student-friendly.

Drafting a Process…

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We presented the model itself along with a quick 9-min explanation of the process with examples.


Dutifully taking the feedback from faculty and incorporating it into our process…

A Final (for Now) Daft of Our “Evaluating While Searching” Process… 

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Our “final for now” draft. We were unable to resolve the debate over “reputable” vs. “reliable” so we punted and used both. The troubling term “reading laterally” became “investigate the source.”

Taking the Process Out for a Drive… 

We tried an initial roll out of our “Evaluating While Searching” process with a section of juniors and seniors in an IB Environmental Science class, and 3 sections of frosh in our interdisciplinary MPX program. Our MPX students are studying aspects of clean water and water rights so we pulled some sample sources together.

As our students, increasingly, turn to video rather than text sources for information, we watched an “Explainer” video piece from Vox Media about water in Flint, MI, and asked students to do some investigating of Vox Media by searching Wikipedia, the media bias ratings of Allsides, the reports from Mediabiasfactcheck.com, and freeform Googling. We discussed the fact that any ratings were subjective and that sometimes ratings between the sources might conflict, but that at least there is some information about the methodologies that Allsides and Mediabiasfactcheck use. Students discovered that not all sources were rated by the tools, and teachers and librarians discovered that many frosh do not know what it means to be politically “left or right” in the United States.

We gave our frosh some additional guided practice in small groups using other sources from our Google search and had them share their findings with their peers. Our discussion lead to some “aha” moments about bias.  Many of our frosh had not considererd, for example, that sometimes a source has a bias because of what they choose to report on or choose not to report on, but what they publish can be high in factual reporting. Our discussion also helped some come to a more nuanced understanding of the term “bias.” The US Center for Disease Control might be seen as having a bias that favors vaccination, but we can probably have a good deal of confidence that content on the CDC’s website is scientifically sound.

Part II – Source Literacy… 

We sent a request out to our local library association listserv asking if any academic libraries had journals and trade journals that they were discarding and could give us. The second half of the lesson entailed taking our stack peer reviewed journals, trade journals, and general periodicals and asking the class to sort them into three stacks. They could use any criteria they wanted except for the physical size of the artifact. Every section of frosh sorted first by topic. “This stack is about science. This stack is history. This stack is culture.” We talked about that being a very useful strategy since that’s how librarians and databases classify content as well–that’s why we search a science database for science sources!

We then asked them to sort by reading level. We got, “This stack is easy. This stack is boring. This stack is super boring.” As it happens, “super boring” things tend to be peer reviewed journals. “Boring” things tend to be trade journals, and “easy” things tend to be general periodicals. This exercise served as a really useful touch stone for kids as we did some searching and sorting in our databases. “Masterfile Complete has a mix of all of these kinds of sources, but the mix leans toward easy and boring with a little super boring mixed in. Academic Search Complete is almost all super boring stuff, but that’s really good to know because when you’re juniors and seniors you will need to search for those sources for sure!”

We had students take a close look at what kind of content we could find in each category of source and talked about expertise.

What Happened… 

I recently got to see some frosh source annotations. While they were not perfect, I was really encouraged because some of the thinking showed, I believe, that our students are beginning to look at sources in context and in concert with other sources they are finding!

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Sample of a pretty nice (IMHO) frosh annotation!

Though this is very much the beginning stages of this rollout, I am excited to finally feel like we are on a path that’s seems to be providing some of the scaffolding our students need to use sources more effectively!


This is Kind of Exhausting, but It Beats Giving Up… 

My father-in-law used to say, “Growing old is not always easy, but it sure beats the alternative…”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m finding teaching source evaluation in today’s information ecosystem and political climate really, really tough and fraught with challenges that feel like pitfalls. I venture on, however, because I fear that if we don’t help students develop trust in something, that they will learn not to be skeptical, but rather cynical of all that is out there. When one is skeptical one still has reasons to continue to seek “small-t” truth and come to an understanding that a reasonable person would consider to be truth. When one is cynical, seeking understanding is a fool’s errand because everyone lies. Everyone deceieves. Everyone is the same…

I don’t believe that everyone producing information, content, and doing scientific research studies is the same. I still think it is worth my effort to seek truth. Walter Cronkite is dead so perhaps I won’t ever again find the “big-T” kind of truth that I believed he was sharing with me on the news at six-o-clock when I was a child. I still, though, believe that many small-t truths from different sources and places can bring me to an understanding that is pretty close to “truth” The world isn’t black and white and the world is not simple for those who aren’t simplistic. Sometimes I hate that, but mostly I’m learning to be okay with it.

So with that I ask… What are you doing that’s been working for you? I can use all the help I can get.


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