Who Can You Trust?: Research in the Classroom
In November, Stanford University published their findings on research conducted on more than 7,000 students of varying ages that strongly suggests adolescents (especially younger ones) struggle to identify credible news sources. Following the wake of a massively heated election, in which fake news sources may have had a significant influence on people’s opinions according to the Washington Post, these Stanford results leave a bad taste in every educator’s mouth--and rightly so. In the new millennia, teenagers are bombarded with social media, television, and headlines everywhere. Now more than ever, it is critical that students learn the skills to be technologically savvy about the information they accept as fact.
While these results came as a shock to many, I was unsurprised. My own students were just beginning to learn their way around the tricky world of news sources. The same month Stanford released its results, my 9th grade class conducted a large research project. Students were given the opportunity to choose a persuasive topic and research three to five sources to help prove their argument. This project allowed my students and me to candidly discuss the credibility, validity, and reliability of sources and source engines. Listed below are the core ideas that will hopefully help my (and your!) students be wiser consumers of knowledge.
Pretty Does Not Equal Honest
When grading my students Annotated Bibliographies of their initial sources for their research project, I was taken aback by the amount of students who listed ‘grammar’ as a reason to consider a source reliable. In addition to my own classroom experiences, an article by the Wall Street Journal outlines how, in the aforementioned Stanford study, students were considerably more likely to trust an article if it was ‘prettier,’ by including pictures or other visual aids. The following day, I spent ten minutes in each class discussing why grammar shouldn’t be an indication of credibility.
We surveyed several .org websites that were beautifully formatted and written with fantastic grammar, but were actually high school newspapers. Following this, we discussed satirical websites that purposefully publish fake news for the sake of humor. The Onion and column’s like The Borowitz Report were proven examples to be wary of. Finally, we talked about sheer common sense through the following conversation:
Ms. Marshbank: “I teach English. Do you guys think I have pretty good grammar skills?”
Class: “Yeah, probably.”
Ms. Marshbank: “What if I wrote an article about a study that showed that 99% of high school students love homework, AND I used excellent grammar? Would that article be true?”
Class (with vigor): “NO!”
Ms. Marshbank: “But I used good grammar. Doesn’t that make it true?”
Class: “Oh, now we get it! Grammar is not the same thing as reliability. Ms. Marshbank, you are the most wonderful teacher who has ever taught anything ever!”
Well, it went something like that.
WHY did the author write this article?
When looking to a source for information, people should automatically assess the natural bias of said source. In class, my students and I discussed how in 2015 the company of Coke funded research surrounding the effects of sugar on life threatening factors, like diabetes and obesity. While the fact that Coke funded this research doesn’t necessarily mean we should discredit the results, it is definitely something the average reader should take into account.
There is nothing written in the entire world that is without bias. We are all biased for or against many things. For example, I am an educator, so you probably won’t see any articles written by me saying that funding education is a bad idea. While it may be a bit jarring for a fourteen year old teen to comprehend the idea that there is no such thing as a fully ‘unbiased’ article, it is necessary to have tough discourse on real-life scenarios with our students. As a person who likes clear rules and boundaries, it is sometimes a struggle to explain to students that most sources are varying shades of biased gray. However, this level of discussion makes our students more capable adults. The goal for students looking to news sources should not be to find something without bias, but to find many articles that correlate the same information, despite their biases.
Don't Trust Google
Google is an extraordinarily helpful tool. My daily activities are never complete until I’ve inquisitively asked my Samsung Galaxy S7 phone, “Ok, Google….?” at least twice. With that said, Google is not the omniscient god of information some of us would like it to be. Google’s most notable reminder of its own mortality happened during this election season, when its top result for the term “final election results” housed an illegitimate news source. According to the Wisconsin Public Radio, the news source was housed on the popular free-blog website WordPress.com and proclaimed that President Elect Donald Trump had won both the electoral and popular vote. The statistics it claimed were believable, but false.
When this story of Google’s faux pas was featured on the school-oriented news source Channel One, my students questioned how people could look at the information from a blog as factual upon first glance. They knew from our own classroom experience that blogs, while often well-meaning, are not to be considered first-rate news sources on their own. A few days earlier, our high school librarian had presented to each 9th grade ELA classroom about the benefits of peer-reviewed databases like Gale, SIRS, or EBSCO. The students understood the value of getting search engine results that had been heavily peer-reviewed by experts in the field. Furthermore, they understand that if you are using Google, to take their results with a grain of salt.
Without our frequent class discussions of what makes a source reliable, my students may not have realized so quickly the fatal flaw that Google missed. Our schools must continue to make concerted efforts towards improving technology literacy for future generations. Students must be able to act as authoritative figures on whom they accept their news from.
Drifting between the land of sleeping and wakefulness, with a bowl of cereal in hand, I used to watch the 6:00am news from my local stations every morning before high school. I remember taking their stories as fact, with the vague notion of opposing news channels that were unquestionably wrong. Now, I don't have cable or a television set. My news comes to me via Twitter and news websites. I spend an approximate equal amount of time fact-checking my sources as I do reading the initial information. In a world where we are flooded with information constantly, we must prepare our students accordingly.