Trust and history (Students and the Internet)
This is my great-grandmother, Catherine Beatrice Forrester (nee Mackinlay, formerly Adams). She was a bigamist, although she claimed to be a widow when she married the second time.
This is her first father-in-law, Walter Adams, Member of the Legislative Assembly of Queensland and onetime Mayor of Bundaberg. He was also a bigamist. He told the minister who married him the second time that he was a bachelor.
This is the marriage certificate for my husband’s great-great-grandparents, George Heath and Mary Miller. As you can see, he gave his age as 21 and she gave hers as 22 but in fact he was not quite 16 and she was 23.
What do these have to do with trust or with education?
In Australia we are in the process of gradually adopting a national curriculum and this year History was added. The two strands of the curriculum are “Historical Knowledge and Understanding”, and “Historical Skills” and one of these skills is “the analysis and use of sources”.
Helping children to locate and understand the use of sources has proved challenging. It’s a new concept for children and often teachers as well. The idea behind it all is that to make a statement about something that happened in the past, you need evidence to back it up and that evidence has to be credible.
A primary source is more valuable because it is a source closer to the original event or a more official source, for example a birth or marriage certificate, a photo, an object from the past such as a coin or a garment.
A secondary source is further removed from the original event, for example a letter or newspaper article about a birth, death or marriage. There have been more opportunities by the time a secondary source is produced for the details to be changed or omitted because the information has passed through a number of “hands”. But sometimes a secondary source is the best or only source available.
Any teacher or parent these days could probably attest to having witnessed students struggle to make sense of the vast resources available to them on the internet. In my experience students sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of search results returned when they are researching a topic. Others latch onto the first site they click on or the one they can understand. These may not be the most reliable or trustworthy sites.
When I went to school I could use books or encyclopaedias to find information. I could usually be sure that they were reliable in their reporting of events of the past because they had passed through peer review and editing in order to be published and while I might find a couple of relevant encyclopaedia entries and a few books on the topic, I wouldn’t get a list of 10 or more pages of possible sources.
While the saying used to be “you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper”, now it’s “you can’t trust everything you read on the internet”. For many of us the internet is the first place we go for information and the wealth of information available to us enriches our lives and our learning.
While I’m probably not going to feel so positive about the use of sources in the teaching of history tomorrow (my daughter’s history assignment is due tomorrow so I’m in for an evening of encouraging and assisting her), I do think it’s a step in the right direction for helping our children to critically evaluate and make sense of what they read on the internet.
David Buckingham in his 2007 book, Beyond Technology, argues for an emphasis on developing children’s critical literacy skills or digital media literacy as a “basic educational entitlement” (p. 144) to help them to function effectively in the world of contemporary media.
I like this quote from Michael Gaffney where he recommends that schools “embrace the concept of digital citizenship as an outcome for all young people. Such approaches care less about fruitless banning and filtering charades, and more about informing, critiquing and building knowledge, skills, understandings and values to the point where our young people are able to confidently ask questions and find solutions that are life giving for themselves and for others”. (2010, p. vi)
The idea of a set of critical media literacy skills for today’s students has been framed in a few different ways by a few different writers. Click here for some further reading on these frameworks.
To go back to where I started this post, i.e. family history, it’s been a hobby/obsession of mine for some years now and in a way the whole thing is founded on mistrust. The experts say that to prove any fact or relationship in family history you should ideally find two primary sources. In other words you don’t believe anything your grandmother told you unless you can find two sources to back it up.
This is good advice in theory. I’ve heard numerous stories about people who find their family tree, researched by someone else, on the internet or even in a book, riddled with inaccuracies and untruths. It is pretty sloppy research when you record the marriage of your great-great-aunt to someone who was born after she died just because he had the same name as her real husband.
But sometimes the primary source is incorrect because of untruths told by the givers of that information, as seen by the examples of my relatives mentioned at the beginning of the post. It takes quite a bit of detective work to get to the bottom of it and the use of as many available sources as possible.
They may not be interested in unearthing family secrets but we need to equip our children with the skills to critically evaluate what they read, look for confirmation from other sources if something doesn’t seem quite right, understand how to work out if a source is likely to be trustworthy or not and to do these before they stake their grades, their relationships or their reputations on something they’ve read on the internet and believed.
Gaffney, M. (2010). Foreword. In M. Lee & G. Finger (Eds.), Developing a networked school community. A guide to realising the vision. (pp. v-vii). Camberwell: ACER.