The only thing I’ve ever felt certain of when teaching source evaluation to students was that no matter what I did I was missing a lot of the nuance involved in evaluating sources. I tried myriad different checklist and every acronym I could find to help students get better at evaluating their sources, but nothing ever felt quite right. I also realized that the strategies I was showing to my students were not strategies I used myself. If I didn’t evaluate information this way, why was I expecting that it would work for students?
A few years ago a friend pointed me in the direction of Sam Wineburg’s work at Stanford, and a lightbulb went off for me. Of course none of the checklists and acronyms felt quite right–they weren’t how expert evaluators evaluated information. Checklists also tended to keep students inside the source to judge its reliability, whereas fact-checkers would go outside the source to evaluate it. I started thinking about how I could teach my students to act like fact-checkers when evaluating an unfamiliar source.
I also wanted to help students approach sources with nuance: sources rarely fit neatly into “good” or “bad” categories–and even if they did, those categories ignore the complexities of a student’s question and research need. A source can be completely factual and not helpful to a student’s research need, and a biased source can help a student understand another perspective on an issue.
I still haven’t found the “just right” way to approach this process (I’ll be sure to keep you posted if I do), but I did recently have a chance to work with a couple classes of seniors that were doing current events work. Their teachers wanted them to get better at evaluating news sources, and especially to have the skills to avoid “fake news”. Inspired by the Source Deck activity developed by librarians at the University of Virginia I came up with a game I call Trust/Don’t Trust/Proceed with Caution.
I started the class by asking students about the process of applying to colleges and jobs and having to ask for references and recommendations. Why do we ask for recommendations? Can’t you just take someone’s word for it when they say they’re hard-working and creative? Or do you want to know what other people see in them as well? That real-world connection clicked for them, and from there we moved into talking about how to “check the references” of the information we find online.
We did a sample site together, first looking at the site’s About Us page, and then doing a search to find out more about what other people and organizations have to say about a site (we did this with [url -site:url] search, which eliminates the site itself from searches, but does show who links to the site). I talked them through how I look at search results to get the lay of the land, and then clicked through to a few sites to show them how I interpret what I find there. Most searches would come up with a Wikipedia article, so I pointed out to them how I interpret the Contents List to help with my evaluation (i.e. if there’s a section labeled “Controversies”, that’s probably where I’m going to start). I also showed them how I’d research any expert or organization quoted in an article.
After that I gave students cards with screenshots of the title, URL, and first paragraph of several news stories from sources across the political and accuracy spectrum. They then worked in groups of three to determine if this was a source they should trust, not trust, or approach with caution. We had them work in groups so they could talk through what they were finding with one another. Groups had 1-2 minutes (time got shorter as we went on and students got more confident in the process) to make their determination, and then each group had to hold up either a Trust, Don’t Trust, or Proceed with Caution sign, and explain why they had chosen it.
The “Proceed with Caution” responses (which I had weighted the deck with) led to really rich discussions about what it means to “proceed with caution” when reading a source. We don’t just want to throw up our hands and say “nothing can be trusted”–we want to approach all sources with our eyes open, but it’s also important to differentiate between “this source has a history of inaccuracy” and “this source has a bias in favor of particular positions or group.” Students were also able to distinguish between “an author who wrote for this source has a reputation for inaccuracy” versus “this source as a whole can’t be trusted.” Students also raised the question of whether or not we can trust Wikipedia, which led to a conversation about what to pay attention to when reading a Wikipedia article, and how to follow the sources they cite.
I was really impressed with the reasoning students used when deciding how to approach these unfamiliar sources, and having these conversations helped students understand how complex this process can be. I’m looking forward to expanding this lesson to be used with other types of questions and sources.