Thursday, December 3, 2015

Evaluating Sources

I had the great pleasure of hearing Sam Wineburg, founder and Executive Director of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), speak last September. SHEG is responsible for "Beyond the Bubble," a site that suggests ways teachers can use primary resources to create innovative, easy-to-use assessments to "gauge historical thinking.”  SHEG is also the creator of the Reading like a Historian curriculum, "87 flexible lesson plans featuring documents from the Library of Congress." Here is a nice article about Reading Like a Historian (which, by the way, is now aligned to Common Core).

I'm a bit of a SHEG groupie, so you can imagine how excited I was to listen to Wineburg, who focused on the problem authenticating information.

The question: With so much information on the web, how do we decide what's reliable? It used to be, we would tell students to avoid ".com" sites, and trust ".org" or ".edu" sites. But almost anyone can establish an organization and claim a ".org" address (and many people with axes to grind do.) Equally, there are many ".com" sites with valuable information (this one, for example).

Instead of hard and fast rules, he suggests we teach our students to ask two questions:

1. Who is the site's author/owner?

Sometimes, the site makes it evident. If not, you can find out in two shakes by using entering the URL into the search bar at "WhoIs.Com".

That gets you a name, and possibly an institutional affiliation. How do professional fact-checkers (people who need to get information in a hurry) vet the expertise of a name they've found on "WhoIs.Com"? According to Wineburg, they search it on Wikipedia--the very site so many of us warn our students to stay away from. However, for something like this, it can be very useful.

2. Who are that author/site's friends?

As Wineburg pointed out, we're known by the people we associate with. Looking for information on the Holocaust? Probably don't want to trust a site whose primary "friends" are neo-Nazis and white supremacists. So--how do you find out a site's friends? You can enter a URL into the search box at http://www.alexa.com/ and it will show who links to that site. Handy!

According to Wineburg, "Reliable information is to civic well-being as clean air is to physical well-being." For this reason, he recommends teaching students that "Sponsored Content" is a fancy way to say "Advertisement" as well as the importance of "sourcing" (by which we mean considering WHO wrote a document, WHEN, Under WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES, and for WHAT PURPOSE) all material--both contemporary and historical.

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