Don’t Teach “Evaluating Sources”

Okay, so that title was a bit of an attention getter. I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t teach students how to evaluate sources at all, just not necessarily when you think you should.

Teachers are faced with the task of figuring out exactly what aspects of their subjects to include in their curricula. We cannot teach everything about our subjects, so we need to be very selective. When we try to do too much, it backfires spectacularly in multiple ways.

In a class which might involve students doing research of some kind, many teachers like to include a lesson or two about evaluating sources. This might not actually be a good idea.

At my current school, another teacher taught students a unit about evaluating sources. I later graded essays written by those students on the topic of “evaluating sources.” What I learned was that students had diligently memorized the content and understood the rules they were presented, but it was such an insufficient amount of knowledge on the topic that they filled in the gaps with a lot of assumptions and it resulted in outlandishly wrong ideas about credibility.

Learning how to evaluate sources might just be one of those things where “something is better than nothing” might not really work. My students thought they were thinking critically, but they were just following along credulously. It was like watching the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. Armed with a few “tips” they approached research from a perspective of assumed ability instead of understood inability. They thought they knew what they were doing, and that made it worse than just not knowing (I taught them before and after they had this unit).

A similar experience happened in my own education. In my high school, we spent a few weeks learning about MLA citation style and which sources were more valid than others. As a result, I spent years with the idea in my head that I knew something about evaluating sources. In retrospect, I knew nothing. The condensed version of evaluation skills left me with a feeling of knowing something I really didn’t, and using that apparent knowledge to justify a whole lot of BS I believed for years.

When you condense down the most important aspects of evaluating sources to fit into a much larger spectrum of knowledge in a curriculum, you lose the levels of nuance, context, and specificity that are absolutely needed to develop a good understanding of how to evaluate sources well, such as: the difference between an authority and a scientific consensus, what red flags to look for if a claim (or website, book, etc.) is actually bunk, when to be skeptical or not, how to hunt for the actual source of a fact, how statistics can be misleading, how to tell if a normally credible source is wrong, what logical fallacies look like in normal writing and how to recognize them, what ideologies usually play a role in which kinds if information, how to determine a conflict of interest, and how to avoid all the dreaded cognitive biases when doing research.

So what to do? If you can afford to dedicate a significant amount of teaching time towards evaluating sources, do a deep dive. If you can’t, don’t just skim over the top thinking that a little knowledge is better than nothing. Instead, focus on fostering a Socratic notion: knowing that you know nothing. Point out ways that students don’t know what they don’t know, and how that applies to evaluating sources. Introduce some ideas that demonstrate their lack of understanding and work on creating a time in the future where their future teacher could do the deep dive that is needed. (In most cases, this isn’t as difficult as you might think.)

By all means, include some things to show students that they shouldn’t just assume sources are true, but if you don’t have the time to explain it fully, don’t just give it a superficial glossing over, you might be doing students a real disservice.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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