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This is the 8th IAE Newsletter
in a series on Credibility and Validity
Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 8: Teaching Students about Advocacy Processes
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
This series of IAE newsletters focuses on credibility and validity of
information. The theme is that students can and should learn to judge
the credibility and validity of information that they use, cite in
their research papers, and communicate to others. This is an important
goal for public education in a democracy.
Advocacy Is Ubiquitous
We all have opinions about many different things, and we
communicate our opinions through our written and oral language, and
through our actions. In a free and open society, advocacy is an
everyday part of life. Within reason, we are free to “speak our minds.”
As we speak our minds, we draw on information stored in our heads and
information that we retrieve from many sources.
The previous newsletter focused on advocacy groups, with special
attention to well-funded political advocacy groups. These groups work
to sway public opinion, and they often present information that is
strongly biased toward their group’s goals and points of view. The
newsletter suggested some ways that a person can seek to determine the
credibility and validity of information being provided by well-funded
political advocacy groups.
This current newsletter focuses on some approaches our public education
system can take to help students learn to function well as personal
advocates in a world of advocacy. It also provides a foundation for
future newsletters in this series that will examine a variety of types
of advocacy groups.
Wikipedia, a Widely Used Resource
In the “good old days,” students learned to make use of
various encyclopedias as sources of information. By and large, the
articles in these encyclopedias were written by experts in their
fields, were subject to review by other experts, and were carefully
edited by staff of the publishing companies. Most students used these
reference sources in their school or public libraries where they had
been carefully selected by the librarians. Now, students frequently
draw on the Wikipedia and other online resources. They consider the
Wikipedia to be a supersized encyclopedia and accept it as a credible
Over the years, the Wikipedia has come under attack for accuracy and
bias. The Wikipedia has responded by putting checks and balances into
place. Their approach provides useful information to teachers and
students who are teaching about and/or learning about credibility and
validity in information. Here are four quotes from the Wikipedia
Wikipedia articles should be based on
reliable, published sources, making sure that all majority and
significant minority views that have appeared in those sources are
Wikipedia articles are required to present a neutral point of view.
However, reliable sources are not required to be neutral, unbiased, or
objective. Sometimes non-neutral sources are the best possible sources
for supporting information about the different viewpoints held on a
Common sources of bias include political, financial, religious,
philosophical, or other beliefs. While a source may be biased, it may
be reliable in the specific context. When dealing with a potentially
biased source, editors should consider whether the source meets the
normal requirements for reliable sources, such as editorial control and
a reputation for fact checking.
Questionable sources are those with a poor reputation for checking the facts, or with no editorial oversight. Such
sources include websites and publications expressing views that are
widely acknowledged as extremist, that are promotional in nature, or
which rely heavily on rumors and personal opinions…. The proper uses of a questionable source are very limited. [Bold added for emphasis.]
I, personally, make extensive use of the Wikipedia. Of course, I do
mental fact checking and generally draw on multiple resources if the
topic I am researching is at all controversial.
Debating an Issue: A Personal Example
What do we want students to learn about the credibility
and validity of the information they receive from advocacy groups? In
what ways can we teach students to evaluate all information and
information sources in terms of credibility and validity? I believe our
schools should design curriculum, assessment, and evaluation so
students gain a good understanding of “debatable” issues. Here is a
personal example from my high school days.
I was on my school’s Debate Team when I was a senior in high school.
The topic for that year was direct election of the President of the
U.S. versus the current Electoral College system.
Debaters were provided with a resource manual that discussed both sides
of the issue and provided some references. Debaters had to learn to
argue both sides of the case, and could draw on the manual and other
resources, as they make up and presented their own arguments and
I learned several important things from this experience:
- In the topic being debated, as in many other “controversial”
issues, two or more credible sides are often present. Each side can
present strong and convincing arguments for its case.
- This particular topic involved lots of data and different ways to
represent the data. It proved to be a fertile ground to practice
misleading, misrepresentation, and even lying with statistics. In
retrospect, for me this suggests the value of students learning about
statistics, probability, and graphical representation of data while in
- Some debaters are much better than others in organizing and
presenting their cases. (I thought I was good at debate, but I
encountered others who were much better.)
- Careful research of the merits of the various sides of an issue,
and looking carefully for valid information and credible arguments, can
help greatly in winning a debate.
However, as I gained in maturity and in wisdom, I came to realize that
even in our relatively open and democratic society, many important
issues are not settled by free and open debate of people who are highly
knowledgeable about the issues under consideration. Moreover, I have
gained some understanding of the compromises—and give and take—that
various interest groups make to achieve their aims. A congressperson
might say, “I am against your bill, but will support it if you will
support my bill.” This may be good politics, but it certainly does not
demonstrate the strength of moral character we hope our schools are
building in our students.
School Curriculum as Advocacy
Secondary school teachers in any required course are apt
to encounter students who ask, “Why do I have to learn this?” This
might be followed by the question, “When will I ever use it?” The
teacher is acting as an agent for people who advocate that the course
and its content be required. Content, teaching methods, and assessment
may be specified by the school, school district, or state. Part of the
job of any teacher is to “sell” both general subject area and the
specific content they are teaching. An answer such as, “It will be on
the test.” or “You will need it in the next course.” is not very
satisfactory. My personal opinion is that, when quite a few students in
a course are not convinced by arguments supporting that the course be
required, then we should be rethinking about why the course is required.
I think both the students and the teacher would benefit by open
discussion or debate about the credibility and validity of required
courses. A few weeks ago I was following an online discussion started
by a teacher who was relatively new at teaching a particular math
course and wanted help in answering the “Why” question. The discussion
didn’t seem to provide very good responses that the teacher could use.
Our educational system tends to believe that the system can be improved
by doing “more of the same—just do it better.” This is certainly not
the philosophy that has moved our country from the Industrial Age into
the Information Age.
If we look at the K-3 math curriculum, most of its content is of
immediate use to students. That certainly helps to answer the “why”
question. The required reading, writing, and arithmetic courses in the
early grades all have the dual characteristics of empowering students
and being strongly supported by society’s accumulated wisdom about what
constitutes a good education.
It is only later in K-12 education that students begin to face required
math—and other courses—in which the content may not appear to be of
immediate use to students. What math, and how much math, should be
required for high school graduation? A similar question can be asked
about reading, writing, social sciences, science, physical education,
art, music, and so on. Much of the required curriculum in secondary
school is a compromise designed to meet the desires of various advocacy
As students gain in their education and cognitive levels, their natural
curiosity and inquisitiveness may lead them to question authority. (If
you have raised children, you have certainly encountered the “why and
when” questions and their question of authority over and over again.)
The content, instructional processes, and assessment in a course can be
a topic for discussion and debate in any course that students are
required to take. Certainly preparing for such student discussions
should be part of teacher education programs of study. A teacher should
be familiar with the research that stands behind the required content,
teaching methods, and assessment of courses they are preparing to teach.
Students Checking the Credibility of their Teachers
As we help students learn about determining the credibility and
validity of information they find, and of the sources of that
information, it seems to me we should give some thought to also helping
students learn about the credibility and validity of their teachers and
of the courses they take. Is the course itself a source of credible,
valid information? Is the teacher credible and does the teacher have
the knowledge and skills to provide students with valid information and
ways to learn that information?
As I ponder this question, I start thinking about myself as a teacher
of teachers in the field of computers in education. I taught such
courses for a great many years. Essentially all of what I taught I
learned on the job. My own transcripts contain no credits in Education
or Teaching of Teachers, Computer and Information Science, or
Psychology. Yet the courses I taught contained considerable information
about human and computer intelligence and Brain Science. My conclusion
is that I have raised a difficult question.
I recall that in high school I wondered about the qualifications of
some of my teachers, but that in college I thought my teachers were
well qualified in their content areas. Some were better teachers than
others, but it didn’t really occur to me to be concerned about that
I don’t recall ever having one of my college students ask for my
qualifications, and seldom did a student question the credibility or
validity of information I presented in class. Perhaps they were awed by
the fact that I had written the book for most of the courses I taught,
and that my reputation included being a national leader in the field.
(It may have helped that as the Web became well established, I made
these books available as free downloads.)
It seems to me that, as students move up the educational and cognitive
maturity scales, they should be learning that their teachers are not
infallible. They should learn about the preparation and experience
their teachers have had, and their teachers’ continuing efforts to
maintain and increase their level of knowledge and skills relevant to
being a good teacher in their field.
Advocacy is an ongoing component of human life. In a free and
open society children should grow up learning a variety of ways to
handle advocacy situations. Our schools can help by making such
exploration and debate a component of each course they offer.
Subsequent newsletters in this series will examine the credibility and validity aspects of various disciplines of study.
David Moursund is an
Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and
coeditor of the IAE Newsletter.
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007,
Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free
online educational materials via its IAE-pedia,
IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
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