Encourage Evidence

Imagine you ask a group of young students to illustrate how our solar system works using their bodies. As you maneuver around the room, you notice students acting as planets, stationed at different spots, rotating themselves at different speeds, all in a circle. Students are clearly pleased with their interpretation. You walk up to the student standing in the center of the action and say, “Ah…and you must be the sun!” “No,” you hear. “I’m the Earth!”

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Now what?!

Before we explore this scenario further, let’s dig into a move we call “Encouraging Evidence.” Sure, inquiry classrooms are bursting with student questions, but that doesn’t mean that answers are off the table. Building a strong knowledge-base of information is important, too. When we encourage evidence, we ask students to be aware and careful consumers of information. We don’t always need to do this for them. They have access to information! So, in an inquiry classroom, instead of immediately correcting or judging, we can ask the students to reflect on their information, using questions like:

“How do you know that?”
“Where did you find that information?”
“How do you know that information is accurate?”

Ok, back to the planets.

There are dozens of possible responses to this scenario [By the way, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments below]. What is certain is that a major misconception about the solar system needs to be addressed.

The default reaction would be to immediately stop the action and tell students that the sun is actually the center of the solar system, not the Earth. This is certainly an efficient way to correct the misconception; but is it the most effective way?

An immediate teacher correction does work in some cases, but let’s think about what cognitive scientists at Neuroleadership Institute have say about integrating and retaining new concepts and information as applied to this situation: Attention (Are students really able to hear you in this moment, not just physically but intellectually?); Generation (Do students have the opportunity to create something new given your correction? Will a new simulation in the same context help solidify this concept, or inadvertently concretize incorrect theories?); Emotions (Are students feeling something positive? Or, are they feeling like they just failed at something? How will these feelings impact learning?); and Spacing (Do students have ample time to fully absorb their misconception? Do they need some time to reflect and think a bit more?)

When, how, where, and by whom the misconception about the solar system gets cleared up are the variables we have to work with as teachers. Rarely do we really consider all of them, however.

Why is it so hard to let the inquiry continue before we step in and “correct”?

We’ve been conditioned by media and our own past experiences to define teaching as essentially “telling.” If students don’t know something, we tend to correct them…immediately. Inquiry asks us to confront and redefine this definition. (For a compelling look at why telling students their ideas are incorrect is often ineffective, watch Annenberg’s brilliant video: A Private Universe.)

Students learn best when they can discover fallacies on their own. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene. That would be irresponsible. It’s just that intervening doesn’t always have to look the same.

What if…

What if we played with the variables, for example:

When: What if we allowed students to believe that the Earth is the center of our solar system for another hour, or another day, or even another week as we guided them into a deeper inquiry about how this couldn’t be true?

How: What if we said “yes” to their (incorrect) ideas? In other words, what would happen if we went along with their theory of the Earth being the center, and played it out with logic questions or specific scenarios? How could you design the next lesson so that students come to the realization on their own that this couldn’t be the case?

Who: What if it wasn’t you who corrected? What if you debunk their theory with a photo, an article, a video conference chat with an expert, an older student at your school, a Socratic Seminar, or a podcast?

What does building this “encouraging evidence” skill DO?

Encouraging evidence builds critical thinking skills. When students (yes, even pre-schoolers) are encouraged to back up their claims with evidence, they have to think about where they got their information; maybe it’s something they experienced first-hand, something a parent told them, a conversation they overheard, a YouTube video, an Instagram post. Heck, maybe even a book they read! Everything we know comes from somewhere, right? The more we are asked to regularly reflect on where information comes from, the more aware we are as a consumer of information.

Encouraging evidence also requires us to be cognizant of and search for multiple perspectives. Where does our news come from? Is there a bias or point of view being pushed? Are we seeing all sides of an issue?

Finally, encouraging evidence requires us to be rigorous and thorough. What’s the copyright date? Does it matter who funded the research? Is it a government-funded or privately-funded paper? Are we sure this is a ‘real’ image or video? Who stands to gain / lose from this publication?

How do we encourage evidence in our classrooms?

We’re glad you asked! Here are some of our favorite “Encourage Evidence” resources today (please suggest others in the Comments below).

1) Renee Hobbs’ Media Literacy Lab

I kinda fell in love with Dr. Hobbs when she came to the University of Washington last year and challenged the audience to look at propaganda (old and new) with fresh eyes. There is a section on this site exclusively for Educators. One of my favorite tools is the ingenious “Media Literacy Smartphone” which are simple paper cards that introduce a structured approach to help students learn to critically analyze any media text. One side of the smartphone displays the various "apps" for analyzing a media text and the other side displays the "five critical questions" of media literacy.

2) Alan November and November Learning

Dr. November is one of the original media literacy experts. I first heard him speak at an International Baccalaureate conference back in 2014 and have been a fan ever since. Check out his Web Literacy Resources and listen to one of his many great TED talks.

3) Common Sense Educator Toolkit (News and Media Literacy)

This nonprofit was established to provide educators and parents with independent reviews of edtech products but offers so much more for educators, including Digital Citizenship resources, EdTech ratings, and Advice.

4) AllSides.com

AllSides.com compiles political news from all perspectives (Left, Right, and Center). Encourage students to combine this resource with various Fact Checker sites.

5) Teach Thought: 4 Phases of Inquiry-based Learning

Author Terry Heick has some great advice about guiding inquiry in this recently published TeachThought article. Pay close attention to Phase 2 (“Clarification”) where he suggests apps for students as they begin to research answers to questions (MindMeister, WordPress, Quora, reddit).

6) PBS NewsHour

There are many terrific resources here related to encouraging evidence. Check out this interview (also available as a transcript): Why we believe what we read on the internet? Carve out time with students to discuss the implications of this at the beginning of the school year or before a research / passion / PBL project.

The upshot of Encouraging Evidence

Halting the motion of a great conversation, research project, or simulation to double-check information is, no lie, really tough. Another is that stopping some one or some process to ask, “How do you know that for sure?” can come off as rude, or impertinent. Whatever the reason for avoiding this question (and questions like it), we need to get over it. We need to encourage our students to ask one another (and their teachers, ahem!) how they know what they know.

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Let’s keep the conversation going on Wednesday, March 20th from 5-6 PM PST #ExperienceInquiry Twitter Chat

“Inquiry in the Google Generation”