As a teacher librarian, information evaluation is something I think about a lot, and yet no matter how many models I've seen for teaching this skill to students, I've never felt fully satisfied. Given multiple popular options, in the past, I've settled on sharing the well-known CRAAP checklist as a guide. However, when observing high school students use it, I've felt disappointed as I watch them quickly scroll around a website and haphazardly put little checkmarks to tally a score. After going through the motions, what exactly have they determined about the information in front of them? Not enough has been my estimation and others agree (Caulfield 2018).
Fast forward to the recent explosion of fake news. To me, the gift in all of this has been renewed interest regarding information evaluation. Following the latest advice on improving research instruction, I have been most captivated by discussions about lateral reading, which I first noticed in the 2016 article "Most Student's Don't Know When News Is Fake, Stanford Study Finds." Referencing a study by the Stanford History Education Group, the advice is to use "basic skills used by professional fact-checkers," to read laterally by "leaving the website almost immediately after landing on it and research[ing] the organization or author" (Shellenbarger 2016).
The idea of lateral reading makes a lot of sense. As I explain it to students, how can we really trust what we learn from a website's own "About Me" page? What would any of us write about ourselves? Isn't it logical that we might learn more about a website by reading what others have to say about it? The thing is, within my high school, telling students to just open new tabs and research about the information they're evaluating is too wide open, particularly when a lesson like this is afforded a class period of forty-five minutes for forty students, so I have sought out more specific guidance. Failing to find structured activities for teaching lateral reading skills, I developed my own acronym: WAAC (for details, visit my WAAC page at https://sites.google.com/guhsd.net/waac-info-eval/home). With WAAC, I aimed to help students evaluate information by providing concrete ways to read laterally at four different levels:
A = Author (or organization)
A = Article
C = Claim (or specific evidence)
When an opportunity to collaborate presented itself this past semester, I had students practice these techniques using a random news article of their choice. Having them select a standalone article is a bit problematic since it means they did not have an authentic information need to consider, but it mimics the way social feeds deliver information in everyday life, and the exercise proved to be eye-opening.
My first takeaway was that students struggled to determine what even constitutes an article online. They could not distinguish a news article versus a personal blog post versus an online encyclopedia entry. Realizing this, I made a quick adjustment to the directions and limited them to only searching Google News. This provided some helpful focus as they selected an article to evaluate.
My next takeaway is dedicated to all of the adults who are quick to criticize students' lack of "basic" knowledge. I myself have been guilty of feeling perplexed that students have never heard of publications like Newsweek that I consider commonplace (see more on this in my article "Planets Apart: Recognizing Students' Different Information Communities"). As students worked through the WAAC exercise, though, I found that I also did not know many of the websites students were evaluating. For instance, one student investigated the Greensboro News & Record, which was new to both of us Californians, and she came to learn its roots go back to 1890 and it's the largest newspaper serving Guilford County, North Carolina. Given the breadth of publishing opportunities and the ability of digital distribution to transcend boundaries, name recognition is no longer a given.
In the end, when students reflected on the process of evaluating their articles using WAAC, one comment stood out: "I probably wouldn't use it if I'm lazy." I loved this honesty and addressed it with students. The WAAC exercise is indeed too long and tedious to do for every piece of information we encounter. I explained how it was simply a way to practice several techniques that they might use in the future. They should see it as a menu of starting points rather than an exhaustive checklist. In fact, recognizing how daunting it was to tackle all four levels of WAAC, I created a scaled-down exercise that focused on just the (W)ebsite-level for a subsequent collaboration with a different teacher (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1eUXHX68ltkQcC3TIf06qIHOrWYiKyp08Zjp2iowyAZw/). Even with the simplified version, though, I worry about the long term effectiveness of these structured exercises and whether or not students will naturally integrate strategies into more general habits.
I'm still learning and researching. Another approach I'm intrigued by is Mike Caulfield's SIFT moves (Caulfield 2019). And while I'm not entirely sure what my instructional approach will look like yet acronym-wise, luckily, I have the summer to read more, reflect, and regroup. I like to give my students the disclaimer that research and information evaluation is not easy in our constantly evolving information landscape. The practices we're attempting to build are fairly new, but that also makes it exciting. I learn from observing my students, from seeing where they struggle and what they produce, from hearing their feedback and trying new iterations. My hope is that students at least come away from my lessons knowing that information evaluation is ultimately about the process of questioning and making sense of what it is that we're looking at, even though there isn't a neat key with all the answers.
Caulfield, Mike. "Introducing SIFT, a Four Moves Acronym." Hapgood. May 12, 2019. https://hapgood.us/2019/05/12/sift-and-a-check-please-preview/.
Caulfield, Mike. "A Short History of CRAAP." Hapgood. September 14, 2018. https://hapgood.us/2018/09/14/a-short-history-of-craap/.
Sannwald, Suzanne "Planets Apart: Recognizing Students' Different Information Communities." School Library Connection. April 2019. https://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2187122.
Shellenbarger, Sue. "Most Students Don't Know When News Is Fake, Stanford Study Finds." Wall Street Journal. November 21, 2016. https://www.wsj.com/articles/most-students-dont-know-when-news-is-fake-stanford-study-finds-1479752576.
Selected work by Mike Caulfield:
Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers eBook: https://webliteracy.pressbooks.com/.\
Hapgood blog: https://hapgood.us/.
Online Verification Skills video playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBU2sDlUbp8&list=PLsSbsdukQ8VYy88IiSJhz4NyBxxtLzsNr.
Valenza, Joyce. "Truth, Truthiness, Triangulation: A News Literacy Toolkit for a 'Post-Truth' World." School Library Journal. November 26, 2016. http://blogs.slj.com/neverendingsearch/2016/11/26/truth-truthiness-triangulation-and-the-librarian-way-a-news-literacy-toolkit-for-a-post-truth-world/.
Wineburg, Sam and McGrew, Sarah and Breakstone, Joel and Ortega, Teresa. "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning." Stanford Digital Repository, 2016. http://purl.stanford.edu/fv751yt5934.