A Quick Guide to Due Diligence
I want to be a good skeptic and a good teacher, but I have a thousand tasks to do both in and out of the classroom and things like “fact-checking” get relegated to the procrastination pile.
In a perfect world, I would make sure I’m not unintentionally passing on any misinformation to my students by vetting everything I teach through my skeptical toolkit first. Unfortunately, as we are constantly reminded by our Sisyphean jobs, the world is not perfect.
Nor are we, as skeptics, teachers, or humans. Still, teachers have a certain amount of due diligence by default. In our profession, we have a responsibility to our students and our society to make sure that what we are teaching is actually true.
While this may seem obvious, even anecdotally I can recall dozens of facts I learned in school which turned out to not be true at all and it would have taken only a minute of fact-checking for those teachers to verify their information beforehand. Teachers passed on many specific pieces of misinformation to me and I carried those errors until I discovered the skeptic movement and realized that I couldn’t take anything for granted. Ever.
The conundrum is simple: on one hand we have a duty to teach what is actually true (and as skeptics this is even more important to us), on the other hand is the overworked reality of our situations. There’s a lot of work to do; ask almost any teacher and you’ll hear dozens of stories of grading or lesson planning until late in the evening.
After months of struggling to find a balance between getting all my work done and doing my due diligence as a skeptic by carefully checking all the information I present to my students, I’ve come up with a short list to help guide my planning process. I can’t research everything, but as a skeptic I want to stop the spread of misinformation as much as possible so here are the rules I follow:
1. When in doubt, always double check.
Even as an English teacher, I find myself going to the dictionary every day to make sure a word means exactly what I think it means. If I can’t remember where I heard something, I need to look it up. Doubt is a friend to skeptics, take advantage of it.
2. Randomly check some facts that you are not in doubt about.
Being sure about something is a great reason to doubt it. How often do we find out that our most tightly held beliefs aren’t backed up by evidence? With each lesson, try to find one thing you are certain and spend a minute doing research on it. Often you don’t know what you don’t know.
3. Don’t be afraid to make changes after the fact.
I taught something wrong in ten classes before I realized I was mistaken. I changed my lesson to accommodate the corrected information and used the corrected lesson in the future. For the ten classes in which I made the mistake, I told them about it the next week. If you start having doubts about something you taught after you taught it, it’s never too late to look it up.
4. It’s okay to clear disputes during class.
A student called one of my facts into doubt, so I went to a reliable website during the class period and looked it up. We only lost half a minute of lesson time, but we all found out what the correct information was. My students also saw me model good skepticism (and good teaching): instead of just asserting that I was right and my student was wrong, I checked my own facts publicly. In some cases this may not be acceptable, however these are often great teaching moments where students can see that “I don’t know, lets find out,” is an excellent answer to a tricky question.
5. Don’t assume your source is always right.
This seems obvious, but it is worth mentioning anyway. Even the most reliable sources make mistakes. Wikipedia is a great way to find information until it isn’t. Textbooks are notorious for sporting misinformation and most teachers already know not to rely on them for the best guidance, but even our greatest sources aren’t perfect. When in doubt, always doubt.
6. Can’t verify it? Don’t teach it.
Sometimes it can be too time-consuming to find the real answer to a particular question. This is where the reality of the job sets in: there aren’t always enough hours in the day. When there just isn’t enough time to verify a particular nugget of information, I have found that it’s often better to just leave it out of the lesson. If it comes up in class, you can apply the honest “I don’t know,” to the situation and try to look it up later, or better yet, get the students so interested that they want to find out the truth on their own and bring it to class next time.
Have any other rules you’d like to add to the list? Feel free to drop a comment.