George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
A librarian is peering over the shoulder of a student who is sitting next to two other female students, all working on desktop computers in a library.

In today's globalized information age, an ever-increasing proportion of misinformation accompanies the burgeoning wealth of new and changing information. As students are bombarded with social and news media that blur lines between fact and opinion, they need guided experiences to build their critical analysis of information validity and value.

My previous posts in this series described strategies to build students' executive functions of organizing, prioritizing, and judgment. This post will suggest ways to activate your students' developing neural networks of skillsets for critical analysis. These skillsets include information literacy to evaluate what needs to be gathered, what characterizes fact versus opinion, and where to find the most current and useful information.

With these understandings, students will be prepared to form opinions based on facts instead of social media or biased reporting. They can learn to apply the accuracy standards to a school assignment while modeling for documents and reports in their future careers. They will be prepared to evaluate methods of applying new information for present problem solving or innovation beyond the status quo.

Building the Skillsets

Students should be taught explicitly and provided opportunities to practice finding the most applicable information, assess media for validity, and document their own work appropriately.

1. Analyzing which information is best for their goals

  • Before students gather information for a report or discussion, have them evaluate what resources are most needed and relevant to their assignment and learning goal.

  • Personalize the experience with initial topics of personal relevance before focusing on the resources that they'll need for an academic assignment. (Examples provide a more memorable and lasting structure.)

  • Invite sharing through class lists of where different types of resources can be found. For example, they can locate primary sources through the Library of Congress or start with those available in 6 Free Online Resources for Primary Source Documents by Monica Burns.

2. Analyzing validity

If students are to form opinions based on facts rather than social media, biased reporting, and unsupported claims, they need opportunities to evaluate information validity. Here are some suggestions for helping them recognize the difference between theory and research or between fact and opinion:

  • Learn scientific method and use it to critique research.

  • Evaluate data to understand that correlation does not equal causation. The Spurious Correlations website provides intriguing graphs to help students recognize that just because movements of two variables track each other closely over time doesn't mean that one causes the other. An example is a graph of data that shows a 99 percent correlation between divorce rate and per capita margarine consumption in Maine between 2000 and 2009, although there is absolutely no support that margarine use is a cause of divorce.

Here are some suggestions for multimedia evaluation.

  • Students analyze information about a topic, event, or person using a variety of sources: visual images, graphs, charts, maps, cartoons, photographs, artwork, eyewitness accounts, etc. Then, they discuss or write their analysis of discrepancies, evidence types used to support claims, and the clues that guided them to decide whether information was opinion, interpretation, or fact.

  • Engage interest in this skill of information literacy building by starting with opportunities to analyze validity in topics of interest or past personal experiences. For example, evaluate historical characters popularized in literature or media, such as Pocahontas in the Disney films compared with a portrait of Pocahontas created during her life as well as written descriptions of her appearance and actions.

  • Compare accounts of historical events from different sources to increase awareness of conflicting perspectives.

The next and in some ways most important step is building students' personal rubrics for source validity. Critical analysis of websites can guide the development of their understanding.

  • Students begin a research project (or for this first experience, they select a topic of personal interest to investigate via websites) by finding examples comprising the extremes of websites about the same topic.

  • They select one or more sites that they believe are highly objective and authenticated, and one or more that they think misrepresent facts or try to disguise opinion as fact.

  • After making their selections, they review and evaluate what criteria they used in forming their assessments of valid and invalid sites. These are shared in class discussion. Then students create a whole-class rubric demonstrating potential criteria to evaluate website validity and misrepresentations.

  • Students continue to build and refine their skills by applying the criteria that they found most useful when evaluating subsequent websites and information sources for future assignments. They can then continue to refine the class rubric and their personal rubrics to help them assess source validity going forward.

3. Support their opinions

Ask students to support their opinions with both their reasons and valid references. As an example, have them create timelines of events in history, progress in a field of scientific knowledge, or major events in a novel. Beyond the usual timeline assignment, they should include specific quotes or texts that support the items they've selected for the timeline.

Your Guidance

Your guidance in this critical analysis will become evident as your students become stronger information analysts who can distinguish fact from opinion, weigh information validity, and evaluate its worth in relation to their goals. You'll encourage the birth of dendrites and synapses in their brains, giving them the executive function boost needed to achieve their highest potentials, successes, and satisfaction in their future careers.

Was this useful? (1)
Helping Adolescents Build Executive Functions
How does the adolescent growth spurt affect young brains? Here are strategies for guiding your students through these years of transformation.

Comments (13) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (13) Sign in or register to comment

Jennifer Boudrye's picture

I can't agree more with the importance of teaching information literacy skills in myriad content areas as these skills are vital for success in academics and in life. I do wish you had included the invaluable role that school librarians play as this is our area of expertise. School Librarians are trained to work as instructional partners with teachers in exactly the ways you describe. Across the country school librarians are crying out, "Let us librarian for you!". We appreciate every opportunity to highlight information literacy and the role school librarians play in helping students achieve. Thank you for such a valuable article!

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Jennifer, I couldn't agree more and appreciate your bringing the critical role of school librarians in regard to literary skills to light. As you say, teachers as well as students have a great source of skills and information resources for building critical analysis in media literacy as well other executive functions, in their own school librarians. Keep Igniting!

Cathi Fuhrman's picture

I couldn't agree with you more when you state that "Students should be taught explicitly and provided opportunities to practice finding the most applicable information, assess media for validity, and document their own work appropriately." You've described exactly what school librarians explicitly teach to lead and guide students to be lifelong learners and effective consumers and creators of information.

When we discuss these critical skills that students need, we need to include the expertise of the school librarians as not only the educators to teach these skills but also the instructional partners that can support and guide teaches in creating the best opportunities to practice these crucial skills.

Thanks for continuing to keep information literacy skills at the forefront of educating future ready students!

Lynne Oakvik's picture

Your blog highlights the vital importance of developing critical thinking and media/information literacy skills necessary to find success in a digital world. These skills are not just essential for students -- but for teachers as well - and brings to note a critical omission in your post on the role of teacher librarians to support both students and teachers in acquiring these skills. When working with teachers to plan research projects, I always start with Eli Pariser's TED Talk "Beware Online Filter Bubbles" to underscore the importance of knowing how search engines like Google work and how they can limit access to information and create an even larger digital divide. When designing instruction for critical thinking, research and information literacy, it is vital to include the school librarian in the process.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Great tip on the importance of knowing the commercial impact on the digital divide and the TED resource. Thanks

Leslie Yoder's picture

Dear Judy,

I have read, enjoyed and shared your research in my own brain/technology/education presentations, and so was thrilled to see the post above included in my school district's daily news feed. Your topic was even more thrilling as good information skills are so crucial to academic and life success.

The omission of any mention of school librarians left me reeling. In a district such as mine which has 70% of students in poverty, is 1:1 with Pads, and has 15 licensed librarians for 38,000 students, the teaching of information skills goes by the wayside. There are simply no staff designated to accomplish this so our students pay the price.

We need the advocacy and support of scholars like yourself to make the case that even digital natives need instruction in information skills and that school librarians are best suited to do this. It is our passion. And it ensures equity for all students.

Many thanks for your good work,

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Thank you Leslie for adding your insights to those of Lynne about the vital services school Librarians can provide to teachers and students for building Critical Analysis executive functions, especially through one of the skillsets professional librarian offer in Media Literacy.
Thanks, Leslie, for what you and your colleagues do.
Keep igniting,

sksgrigsby's picture

Judy: You have made some important points about teaching students to navigate effectively in the digital world. As other commenters before me have said, the analysis of validity, authority, accuracy, relevance, and appropriateness are all part of the librarians tool kit. This is what we teach every day. Teachers (and principals and other administrators) go through their entire pre-service training without ever hearing about what should be happening in their media centers or how to leverage the unique expertise of the media specialist. I encourage you to take a look at a brief document that outlines the functions of a fully realized library media program so you can see for yourself that your article clearly aligns with those functions. Thank you for your post and for helping our colleagues know there is already an expert in the building.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Excellent, concise document. I particularly appreciated the illumination of the importance in communication within to best guide student understanding of communication and media

sksgrigsby's picture

Thank you. It was developed though a collaboration with University program chairs (library media/instructional technology), system media coordinators, Georgia Library Media Association members and building level media specialists. Please feel free to share this or get in touch if you want more info!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.