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Info-Magic: 3 Ways To Get Students Thinking Critically About Info Sources in PBL

"When lies dress up as fact, it's best to read as little as possible or find a different tailor." - Mark Twain

In a time where fake news is being mistaken for real news, it is more than important, essential really, to teach our students to question the validity of the information that they are gathering. This is essential in a Project-Based Learning classroom for many reasons. It is a key way for students to learn critical thinking skills. It helps students to diversify the information they take in and seek new sources of knowledge. And if we as PBL practitioners truly believe that quality projects really prepare students for the future and their role as citizens, giving them the ability to be discerning when it comes to info intake, something essential to their intellectual health and the health of our national and global society.

But above all it is a foundational aspect of research, a component of both student inquiry and self-directed learning. By gathering background information on a topic or problem, students are able to analyze the process that information into possible solutions or answers to a driving question.

Author Daniel J. Levitin recently wrote an aptly-timed book titled A Field Guide to Lies where he discusses this very issue. In his book, Levitin discusses how an "era of new media demands a new literacy" as evidenced by the prevalence of fake information online. He also points out that this information isn't relegated to fake news sites hosted in Macedonia, but the startling amount of untruth in traditional sources that students trust such as Wikipedia, Reddit, and other popular information outlets. Levitin writes, "Anyone who consumes easy, cheap, fast information must understand how to verify that information themselves. It should be clear by now that nobody else is doing it for you."

But how do you actually do this? How can students be sure that the information that they are getting is actually real? And more to the point, how can we teach them to critically think about where their information is coming from, and not just go with the first link that they click after they Google search?

This problem is one that social studies and history teachers are well aware exists. History teachers routinely instruct their students in how to recognize bias, track down sources, being able to identify primary versus secondary information, and the importance of keeping track of where the information you're getting came from. Just as we are all now literacy teachers under the Common Core, all teachers who have their students engage in research should consider themselves unofficial history teachers and actively teach students to be suspicious and questioning when approaching information from new sources.

As many teachers may not know how to do this, I thought it might be helpful to go over a couple of classroom-tested, student-friendly methods of scaffolding the process of information gathering;

The CRAAP Test - Despite it's somewhat questionable name, the CRAAP test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) is an easy to follow scaffold that allows students to go through a source systematically and question multiple parts of a source. Everything from the author, to the date published, to the website hosting it. If a source gets a score that is too low, then it is, well you know . . . not a good source. The approaches used in this test can be applied to future research. There are multiple version of this test that can be used in both primary and secondary education.

Source Wall - This simple procedure can be done either on a giant piece of butcher paper, like on a learning wall, or on a website. As students find sources, they share them with the rest of the class, supporting their peers and expanding the resources available. The Source Wall acts as an informal peer review where students are encouraged to share when they find corroborating sources or find ones that contradict already suspect information. These walls can be saved and used in future years as well. Here is one created for an issues project I did with my students.

The Six C Approach - Many students choose to knowingly use bad sources of information like Yahoo Answers (ugh!) because quality sources are too dense. As a way to combat this, the History Project at UC Irvine created the Six C approach. This worksheet can be used for all sources of info, not just primary source docs and help students focus in on the meat of a source by looking at main idea, connections to prior knowledge, and the context in which the source appears, things that should be looked at when doing research with any type of source.

Hopefully these tips will help you prepare your students for the "information war" now raging around them so they don't just take information, text, memes, or even quotes at face value. Speaking of quotes, that quote I led this post with was totally made up, something you may have caught or might need to use one of these approaches to uncover.

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