Want to get a 7th grader's attention? Tell them Google doesn't speak English. That's what we talked about all of last week, which seemed to work pretty well. At least, when my Monday class came in today, they could all tell me what language Google spoke (keywords). Today, we took the foundation of choosing relevant keywords to search for topics and applied it to looking at the websites that are on the resulting search list.
Despite some pretty non-fantastic behavior by a few of the classes, they actually seemed to think through the concept of trustworthiness of a source pretty well (a lesson previous generations never really had to learn). After a discussion of the types of domains that exist, key things to look for on a website, and not to believe everything just because it's online, I sent them off to find reliable sources on some fairly opinionated topics.
It took me forever to find things to have them search for to examine reliability. The reason for this is that when I considered how I find reliable websites, I realized that I based my decisions on the source that I am looking at. That's great if you know that the Huffington Post or The Guardian are news organizations or that about.com is not a particularly great source. Most of the websites that they would be looking at, they have no way to know if it's true or not, just based on lack of life experience. And, I can't just give them a list and say, here, memorize it, which would be totally ineffective. I can't even tell them things like don't trust blogs (nytimes.com has tons of news blogs) or don't trust wikis (Wikipedia is more trustworthy than print encyclopedias).
So, I spent AGES looking for topics to search for that would have some reliable sources and some not so reliable that the kids might be mildly interested in. What I eventually ended up going with were these questions (they had to be in question form so kids had to choose keywords), "Why is there a drug war in Mexico?" and, "Is the president doing a good job?" This brought a variety of types of sources, including opinions, answer sources, news coverage, junk, and more.
Then, I walked around and asked everyone whether or not the website they were looking at was reliable and how they knew it was. Apparently this was a good line of questioning, because it was pretty clear who knew whether or not it was a reliable source. Some of the reasons given for something to be reliable:
-It uses lots of references to outside sources (Wikipedia)
-It has a lot of news information and covers things from all over the world (Washington Post)
-The author is an expert because she has been interviewed by major non-profit organizations (National Geographic)
-The author is listed as a professor/Dr. in a related area of study
-It is described as an encyclopedia (Wikipedia)
-I recognize the news source (CNN, CBS, etc.)
-"Times"/"Post" labels tell me it's a news organization (LA Times, Huffington Post)
and my favorite reason:
-My mom uses this to look things up (Wikipedia).
I told her this was a good reason, because if you don't know whether to trust something, ask someone you trust if they trust it. Not always a guarantee, but a good starting point.
I also had one particularly perceptive student ask whether or not Facebook was a reliable source, so we spent some time discussing how it is a great source if you are looking for an opinion poll of a bunch of people, or if you want opinion quotes from normal people for some sort of article, but that you wouldn't want to use it as a hard source for an academic report of any sort. We also spent some time talking about whether or not it's good to use a manufacturer website as a source (yes if you want facts about the product, no if you want unbiased descriptions/opinions/reviews, etc.)
So, lots of interesting discussion. I'm excited to see if the rest of this week's 7th graders keep up the good work!