By Tasha Bergson-Michelson
Dear Savvy Searcher,
You wrote recently about the importance of teaching search skills. What do you make of the whole idea that kids no longer need to learn facts because they can find answers so easily online? Do you think that is true?
When I was growing up, we used to say that you don’t need to know everything, just know how to find it. I firmly believe the same today, but I now appreciate that an integral part of search literacy is knowing enough background information to make informed decisions about what sources to believe. The ability to evaluate sources is one of the linchpin skills students need for navigating research both online and off.
As I argued in my last post, research skills can’t be taught in a single lesson, but must be cultivated slowly, over time. There are many technical skills that students should develop to learn more about a source. But no matter how well we can analyze web addresses, research authors, or uncover who owns a website, the most fundamental skill we have for judging a source is what Ernest Hemingway called our “built-in automatic crap detector.” What fuels this “crap detector,” if not a collection of learned facts?
In the lingering spirit of April Fools’ Day, consider the famous hoax Web site, Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. Now, I am not particularly enamored of using hoax sites to teach evaluation. Identifying a popular hoax is a whole lot easier than dealing with the more subtle types of misinformation students need to learn to avoid. However, the tree octopus site is well-constructed, and we can use it to practice reflecting on how common sense and background knowledge combine to set off the crap detector. After all, many students have seen or heard about some octopus in the past, and have the ability to surmise that one probably does not live in a tree. My experience is that most students encountering the tree octopus for the first time say, “That’s weird!” giving a great opening for discussion about how when common sense alarms go off, it is good to dig further.
Such a lesson can be both fun and empowering. The message is not, “There is so much misinformation out there and you have been wrongly believing it all,” but rather, “You already Continue reading