If we’re not teaching students how to find credible sources on the internet, we’re not teaching them an essential 21st-century skill.
During my first year of teaching, I gave out a pretty standard, English-teachery assignment: choose a controversial issue, write an essay that crafts an argument for one side of the issue, and use supporting evidence.
For the conclusion paragraph, I gave (what I thought was) some good advice: find a powerful quote that will sum up your main argument and really drive home your point.
Decent enough advice, but I was a little taken aback when I got to the end of an essay about (what else?) the legalization of marijuana that contained this quote from George Washington:
“The drug is really quite remarkably safe for humans, although it is really quite a dangerous one for mice and they should not use it.”
I might not always be the most perceptive person out there, but I was pretty sure George Washington never said that.
A quick internet search told me I was right. Clearly, this student had used Google to find the quote but hadn’t thought much about whether his source of information was credible.
And a little further research told me that my student was not alone: lots of quotes have been misattributed to famous people and, even more surprisingly, lots of other famous people have used those misattributed quotes in trying to add validity to their points – the same thing my student did!
Thomas Jefferson Foundation has dozens of quotes credited to the third president that he never said – some that were never even said until long after his death.
Of course, it doesn’t stop at quotes. Dan Rather taught us that mainstream news can’t be trusted. Lies My Teacher Told Me taught us that textbooks can’t be trusted. And pretty much every politician ever has taught us that the things they say can’t be trusted.
So it’s not enough to simply tell kids to use research databases as trusted sources of information. That gives students a false sense of safety. We need to help them become shrewd consumers of their biggest source of media: the internet. Here are some tips to do that:
1. Demonstrate how the internet can be untrustworthy
Try this out in front of your class:
- Project the Google homepage onto the screen for all your students to see, and enter “Martin Luther King” into the search box.
- For the past five years (at least) martinlutherking[dot]org appears on the very first page of the results. Click on it.
- Open the page and get kids’ reactions on the page’s validity. The site looks pretty legit on a cursory inspection, so most students will say as much.
- Click around on the site. Students will start to see some questionable ideas. King was a philandering drunk? MLK Day should be repealed? What?!
- Click the link on the bottom of the page that says “Hosted by Stormfront” and find out that the site is actually the work of a white supremacist group affiliated with the KKK. Students will be rightfully shocked.
This is a powerful demonstration of how a) Google results cannot always be trusted b) professional looking websites cannot always be trusted and c) .org websites cannot always be trusted. Given the disturbing and deceptive nature of the site, it’s a lesson that won’t be forgotten quickly.
2. Get students questioning where they are getting their information
When you have students researching on the web, be sure to require that they are questioning their sources. They should be asking questions like “Do I think this source of information is credible?” and, more importantly, “Why do I think this source of information is credible?”
The Purdue Online Writing Lab explains the thought process of evaluating sources here. And great teacher/blogger Catlin Tucker has a Google Form you can copy and use to help students extensively evaluate their sources here.
3. Model using high-quality sources for students
We’ve probably all seen a meme on the internet (probably shared by our ultra-libertarian uncle on Facebook) that contains some fact that we can probably guess isn’t true. Students are bombarded with information akin to this all the time.
So it’s important that when we present sources to our students, we explain to them why we think they are high-quality and trustworthy. Explain your thought process in front of the class, and if you have any small doubts about your source, let students know! Replacing the teacher-as-expert model with the teacher-as-co-learner one will go a long way in helping students become discerning media consumers.
4. Teach students to Google better
If you’re like me, you probably use Google to research all types of things about 50 times a day. It’s how most of us learn about our world in this day and age. Our students are the same. So it would only make sense that we should be helping students to Google better.
The handy infographic below has seven ways to make Google more powerful and help students get the quality information they need quickly and without all the chaff. Use agoogleaday.com for a fun, gamified way to practice these skills.
Have any other methods for helping students Google better? Leave them in the comments below!