Three skills to increase a student’s ability to critically evaluate information.
GUEST COLUMN | by Andrew Pass
According to Forbes Advisor, 200 million websites are actively maintained. A new website is built every three seconds. Every one of these websites contains “information” from its author’s perspective or objective. Information found online cannot be trusted. Students need to learn to critically evaluate the information that they read.
A Simpler Time
Thinking about these staggering statistics, I recall my initial week as a doctoral student at Michigan State University, in 1998. My professors told my cohort that the most important thing we can learn in graduate school is to read and write. Read and write? Don’t we already know how to do that? Of course, one cannot get admitted to a doctoral program if one has not previously demonstrated an ability to read and write. But, there are various levels of reading and writing. Research scholars, the graduates of this program, are expected to read and write at the highest levels.
This does not mean decoding text or even understanding the literal meaning of the writing. Scholars must be able to skim text and identify the main point and the conclusion. They must understand the argument the author uses to support their conclusion. Finally, they must be able to evaluate the merits of this argument and determine its validity. Academics then use the information they have gleaned to further their scholarship.
‘…they must be able to evaluate the merits of this argument and determine its validity.’
The late 1990s were a simpler time than the present. Society tended to assume the information students read in school was correct. While students were challenged to think critically about what they read, the guiding assumption was that they could trust this information as accurate and complete.
The proliferation of online content has changed this and generative AI has increased the problem exponentially. An individual can enter a prompt and within seconds the algorithm will generate an authoritative looking response culled from a huge number of sources. We can no longer assume the content contained on websites or the output of generative AI is true. Unfortunately, we must teach students not to assume this either. However, students should also not be taught to assume that everything they read is false. Instead, they must learn to critically evaluate the content they read. The reading skills I learned as a doctoral student must be learned by much younger readers today.
Three Important Reading Skills
American education would benefit students by teaching three important reading skills: skepticism, triangulation, and sourcing.
First, readers must become skeptics. They must be challenged to think about the accuracy of non-fiction content beginning in elementary school. To accomplish this objective they must develop the ability to identify both the author’s conclusion and the points the author makes in the argument. Too often we teach students to read from the beginning of an article until the end. As a doctoral student, I learned that this is not the best way to read. Rather, readers should be taught to skim articles to find this information. Certainly, it is not enough for readers to identify the points in the argument and the conclusion. They must also learn to ask if these points seem credible and support their own answers with external evidence.
Second, students must learn to triangulate. They cannot rely solely on their own experiences to determine the validity of the content they read. Nobody can. Therefore, they need to learn to find other sources of information that either corroborate or challenge the original content, in a process called triangulation. They must develop the skills of asking the right questions and finding the correct sources to find this information.
For years, educators argued that Wikipedia was a horrible source of information for students. Slowly, many of these same educators came to recognize that while Wikipedia alone is a poor source of information, it is a good starting point. Students can acquire information from Wikipedia but then they must test its accuracy with other sources. Today, the same argument can be made about the outputs from generative AI . Test, or triangulate, the information.
Third, students must learn to follow the sources of information from the original content. Reliable information contains citations. Students should learn how to follow the links so they can determine if the author, be it a person or AI, is accurately conveying the information from the source. Students can then follow links from the sources to earlier sources until they determine where the information originated. After this determination, they will be able to evaluate its accuracy through a combination of skepticism and triangulation.
Challenging Tasks, But
These skills may seem challenging tasks to ask elementary school students to learn and they are not easy. But, I taught elementary school for more than twenty years. I know firsthand that young students, in the fourth or fifth grades, can accomplish these tasks. Of course, if my graduate school professors had to teach my classmates and me to read in this way, it should go without saying that teachers will have to teach their students to read in this way.
Andrew Pass is the founder of A Pass Educational Group, LLC. A Pass partners with organizations to develop customized educational content including courses, assessment items, learning objects, supplemental resources and more. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.