It’s been said many times in recent years: We’re living in a post-truth era. Given how politics and entertainment have blended, it’s easy to understand why. As a result, our communication channels allow bad information to spread as quickly as facts.
Social studies teachers stand on the front line of these issues as they seek to present history, civics, and current events in a well-rounded, unbiased way. Let’s look at some classroom activities that will help your students find quality resources that contain only the truth.
Map to Identifying Quality Resources
Typically, if a resource is housed in a university library or a long-standing, reputable scholarly journal, you can have a high degree of confidence in its quality and reliability. However, the Internet boasts innumerable resources outside of academic arenas. So how do you vet resources for yourself?
The University of Georgia recommends using the following criteria when evaluating whether a resource is suitable for your classroom:
Author: Everyone has a point of view and motivations for creating a resource—and that’s okay. However, it’s valuable to understand whether an author is advocating for a certain perspective and what their goals might be in writing a piece (if it’s not purely for informational purposes). To suss out an author’s reputability, ask yourself these questions:
- Was the source published anonymously? An anonymous source may not be automatically disreputable, but it should give you pause. For example, an anonymous op-ed vetted and published by The New York Times carries more weight than an anonymous post on an obscure blog or social media channel.
- Is the author an individual? What are his or her credentials? Has he or she been published by reputable sources, and do others in the field consider him or her an authority?
- Is the author an organization? Do other reputable sources consider it reliable? Does the organization’s website have a stated mission that might impact the types of resources it produces?
Content: Not every resource is going to be a PhD-level treatise decorated with a mile-long list of references. A simple Venn diagram, for example, might not need any references, but if an author makes a specific claim about statistics or current events, he or she should ideally cite verified research or eye-witness accounts. As you’re evaluating content, here are some things to look out for:
- Does the source go into reasonable depth? In other words, does the author provide enough explanations and references in proportion with the claims they’re making?
- Does the author cite facts and statistics where appropriate?
- If the author(s) advocate for a certain position, do they provide evidence to support it?
Citations: Citations are typically a good sign that an author is bringing in a wider body of knowledge to support his or her assertions. However, not all citations are created equally. Here are some questions to ask as you review other sources cited in your resource:
- Are the cited sources reliable? That is, do they meet the same criteria you use to evaluate the resource you’re vetting?
- Are the cited sources current? Outdated sources can sometimes lead to outdated conclusions, especially about current issues. So unless the author has a reason for citing something a couple of decades old, it might not be a good sign for the quality of the resource.
Elementary Classroom Activity: Evaluating Reliable Sources
Are elementary school students too young to tell the difference between a reliable and unreliable source? Definitely not! It’s never too early to teach students about bias and the need to vigilantly examine the information they find online.
Learning for Justice offers a free lesson plan and worksheet to help your third, fourth, and fifth grade students practice finding and vetting quality resources on the Internet. Using the topic of school lunches as an example, students will learn how to compare and contrast resources, how to evaluate those sources, and how to spot biased viewpoints. Here’s a preview of how the lesson works:
Step 1: Review three web pages that pop up from a basic search about school lunches: National School Lunch Program, USDA Shifts Obama-Era School Lunch Guidelines, and School Meal. Learning for Justice recommends printing the web pages or sharing screenshots on a projector.
Step 2: Either individually, in pairs, or as a class, spend 10 minutes or so perusing the web pages. Students don’t need to read every word; they should just get the gist of each site and the differences between them.
Step 3: Split students into pairs or small groups and have them complete the Choosing Reliable Sources worksheet. This worksheet uses a Venn diagram to help students review important details on each page and identify how they are alike and different. If students need some prompts, Learning for Justice recommends the following questions:
- When was each page created or updated?
- What is similar or different about the images on each page?
- What is the main idea or reason behind each page?
- What seems to be the author’s purpose on each page?
Step 4: Come back together as a class to discuss which sources seem most reliable. Through this discussion, you’ll define what it means for a resource to be reliable and develop a list of questions (similar to the previous section) that students can use to vet new resources.
For more information, head over to Learning for Justice’s Evaluating Reliable Sources lesson page.
Middle and High School Classroom Activity: Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion
Gone are the days when most news anchors would report the facts without offering their own analysis or focusing on a particular version of events. As Americans become more and more interested in politics, and as outlets are rewarded for creating click-bait headlines to drive traffic, the news has become a unique blend of facts and opinions—and it’s largely up to viewers to tell the difference.
The New York Times put together some practice activities to help your middle and high school students tell the difference between fact and opinion. Choose an article from the opinions section (the Times provides a list from their paper, but any opinion piece will do), and have your students do the following:
- Start by reviewing the difference between fact and opinion. About halfway down the page, the Times provides a multiple-choice quiz using sentences from real articles to help students spot the difference.
- Have students read the opinion piece you chose. As they read, they should underline the facts and circle the opinions. Then pair students up and have them compare their results. Students can discuss where they differed and why those sentences might have been difficult to determine, and they can also analyze the ratio of facts vs. opinions in the article.
- Once you finish going over the opinion article, find a news report on the same issue. Have students repeat the above exercise: Identify which sentences are facts and which are opinions, and compare the ratio found in the opinion article vs. the news article. Then discuss the results. Were you surprised by the differences? The similarities? What do they tell you about the relationship between fact and opinion?
- Sometimes a good way to spot an opinion is to see if you can come up with another opinion to counter it. Have students pick a new opinion article and fill out this worksheet as they read. Teaching students to think about counterarguments as they read will help them have a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking that will keep them from automatically accepting everything they read as fact.
For more details and activity ideas, visit the Times blog.
The wide availability of so many resources is undoubtedly a net gain for our culture, as it allows more voices to be part of the conversation than ever before. However, as Uncle Ben reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility—and learning how to vet resources online is an essential responsibility of citizens in the modern world.