I’ve long been aware of the widespread misconception that comprehension, critical thinking, and the like are content-free skills. Wanting to help correct that delusion is one of the main reasons I joined the Core Knowledge Foundation.
Having been with the foundation for a little over a month, I’m seeing the skills-don’t-need-content fallacy everywhere. My neck is starting to ache from all this wincing.
Today’s encounter really caught me by surprise. It came from one of my favorite organizations: the American Library Association (ALA). Maureen Sullivan, ALA’s president, wrote a compelling plea on the Huffington Post to save the nation’s school libraries:
Recently the ALA has tracked multiple news reports regarding school districts that have placed school librarian positions on the chopping block in response to budget deficits…. For example, Pasco County (Fla.) School Superintendent Kurt Browning proposed a plan to eliminate 28 school media specialist positions in the next school year because of a budget shortfall…. In Sarasota, Florida, more than 18,000 middle and high school students may be without a school librarian. Local school board officials there are considering a proposal to eliminate all school media specialists…. School Districts in Louisiana, Maryland, Washington State and New York State also are considering proposals or reorganization plans that would eliminate school librarians.
We all know that there are far too many students without books in their homes and without the safe streets or bus fare necessary to access a community library. School libraries are essential—the very fact that Sullivan has to plead for them is a sad commentary on America’s priorities.
All of that is wince worthy. But this is what got me:
School librarians help more than 30 million students each week navigate a vast landscape of digital content, because the majority of students still lack the ability to analyze information found online.
The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Online Survey of Teachers found that although the Internet has opened up a vast world of information for today’s students, their digital literacy skills have yet to catch up. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed stated that students lack the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online. Another 33 percent reported that students lack the ability to recognize bias in online content.
Of course they “still” lack those abilities. Assessing the quality, accuracy, and potential biases of information—no matter where that information is found—can only be done by those with lots of content knowledge. By the very nature of schooling, students are almost always studying content that is new to them, so they very rarely have the extensive knowledge needed to make such judgments.
These questions are asked regarding information found online because adults want students to be able to use the internet more effectively. We might be able to teach students to be generally cautious and skeptical online, but for real analysis, content knowledge is the only option.
To make my point, I’m going to share two “mere facts” that will make us all wince. Fact 1: It’s not just the internet that is full of inaccurate information, even widely used mathematics textbooks are highly error-prone. Fact 2: Very few of us, even few our mathematics education professors, have “the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find” in these textbooks.
The extensive errors in five widely used algebra textbooks were documented in chapter 3 of the report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. The lack of awareness of these problems has been explored by Hung-Hsi Wu, an emeritus mathematics professor at Berkeley. He places blame not on the math education professors (and certainly not on teachers), but on mathematicians:
As a mathematician surveying this catastrophic education mess, I have to admit that, when all is said and done, the mathematics community has to take the bulk of the blame. We think school mathematics is too trivial, and we think the politics of education is a bottomless pit not worthy of our attention. So we take the easy way out by ignoring all the goings-on in the schools…. even though we are daily confronted with evidence that it is not working.
Why doesn’t Wu blame the math education professors or the teachers—and why does he blame the mathematicians? Because he knows that this analysis of the accuracy of mathematics textbooks could only be done by those with deep knowledge of mathematics. Knowledge that, largely due to their neglect of the rest of us, only mathematicians have.
In school, when students are learning about things for the first time, why should we expect them to be able to analyze the information they find online? I can show you a 12-year-old boy who, having been crazy about dinosaurs since he first chewed on a T. rex, can analyze the accuracy of almost anything about dinosaurs. But that same boy would likely fall for the tree octopus.
Out of curiosity, I dug up the Pew survey Sullivan mentioned. The survey sample is not representative of all teachers; it is about two-thirds Advanced Placement teachers and one-third middle and high school National Writing Project teachers. Asked to rate their students excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor, the teachers rated
- 61% fair or poor on “Ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online.”
- 71% fair or poor on “Ability to recognize bias in online content.”
- 59% fair or poor on “Ability to use multiple sources to effectively support an argument.”
Are these results good or bad? We have no way of knowing. These teachers could be challenging their students with a steady stream of new information and ideas. Students may be acquiring broad knowledge that can provide a foundation for future studies. The fact that so many do not yet have the deep knowledge needed for independent online research need not be a great concern—it merely tells us that they need to learn more. Or, these students could be generally uninformed; expected to build analysis skills but not taught relevant knowledge, they may be headed for failure in future studies.
If Pew wanted to find out, it could do a follow-up study to investigate the students’ academic content knowledge. It would likely find, as so many cognitive scientists already have, that students’ analytical skills and content knowledge develop together.