Information Age Education
   Issue Number 161
May, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, five free books based on the newsletters are available: Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the 8th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity of Information.

Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 8: Teaching Students about Advocacy Processes

David Moursund
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 resource.

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 covered.

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 subject.

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 rebuttals.

I learned several important things from this experience:
  1. 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.

  2. 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 secondary school.

  3. 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.)

  4. 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 groups.

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 issue.

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.


Final Remarks

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.

Author

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.
Email: moursund@uoregon.edu.

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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.