Knowing what quality looks like

I’ve been to a couple of really good seminars this week – one by Waikato’s own Noeline Wright, from the Faculty of Education, and another from John Gilbert, a Science Educator at King’s College London. Although the focus of the two talks was different, they both touched on a similar theme, namely that one of the best things you can do for your students is to teach them how to ascertain the quality of any information they might access.

Very few of us become scientists, even amongst those who do science in the last couple of years at school, but all of us will have to make decisions based on information that’s available, and many of these decisions will have some kind of science base to them (e.g. do I try this new medication?, will replacing my car save me fuel costs?, what benefit will insulating my roof actually give me?…)

There is a huge, exponentially growing lot of information that is readily accessible to most people. Some is of real quality, other stuff is just trash. How do I know which website to trust and which to have a good laugh at?  Experience that Noeline and John have had suggests that secondary school students, and even first year university students, don’t have the skills to distinguish the two. We’re talking skills like identifying who is writing the information (e.g. are they trying to sell you something?), what agendas are being pushed?, what evidence is  presented for the claims? what other information is out there? Given these skills will be way more useful to everyone than, for example, being able to solve Schrodinger’s equation in a quadratic potential – and that’s true for physics students as well as the general population – why don’t we actually teach it?

You should be frightened by this: people such as these first year students will form our government in 30 years time. Imagine a cabinet of ministers whose primary port of call for information is Wikipedia. (The thought does occur that certain members of the current cabinet probably get their briefings from Wikipediea, but I shan’t follow that line of thinking any further…)

Noeline showed some amusing but in some cases shocking examples of websites that the students don’t  ‘see though’ and can accept as gospel truth without any real thought. This is an amusing ‘spoof’ example, but there are plenty out there that are seriously pushing some dodgy agenda (e.g. holocaust deniers) and some that are just out to get your money.

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