What is credible? How do you know?

In an increasingly complex post-truth world, people in general – students and teachers in particular – struggle to discern credible sources of online information. Their ability to judge multiple sources of information has and will have a major impact on their collective ability to make decisions in a modern, democratic society.

This is the area of research I have been working through over the past month.

We need to better understand the challenges presented by a post-truth. As a term, post-truth is relatively new. Most of us probably became aware of post-truth with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. He didn’t invent post-truth but Trump and other politicians have used alternative facts as an every day tool with impunity.

What strategies and techniques can be developed to provide educators and students with appropriate tools to effectively evaluate what is credible and what is baseless information? Is this even possible to do?

In a world that possesses an abundance of information, more readily available than at any other time in history, we swim in a sea of disinformation, suspicion, and confusion (Chinn et al., 2021). Accordingly, our ability to make decisions that affect our everyday life is severely hampered (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020). This is the world of post-truth; here, the forum of political debate can be filled with half-truths and outright lies. What is ‘true’ is up for debate on every news channel (Buckingham, 2019). The challenge of acquiring information has been complicated by several factors including the increased prevalence of misinformation; the outright rejection of established claims; the discrediting of facts over personal beliefs; a declining trust in the institutions that provide us with information and the fragmentation of that information (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020). 


This is not a new situation. Many generations have had to contend with information sources designed to distract and misinform. Thomas Jefferson witnessed the increased flow of political pamphlets brought about by the advent of movable type. While this technical innovation allowed for the spread of cheaply produced rhetoric and opinion, it also opened the door to a more questionable collection of reading material. Jefferson’s solution then is as relevant today. Rather than ban the half-truths and false claims of the pamphlet, Jefferson argued that people needed to be taught to discern truth from fiction (Wineburg & McGrew, 2019).

What are some features of a post-truth world? One common theme focuses on the inability of people to spot unreliable information. They may rely on a single source for their information or have little experience with fact-checking sources (Chinn et al., 2021). The widespread availability of digital information can also make it a challenge for people to decide who possesses expert information (2021). It cannot be taken for granted that the public has the skill set required to assess the trustworthiness of the experts they are reading. There exists the tendency for people to ‘choose’ their own expert opinion, especially when the information confirms previously held beliefs (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020).

This is an area that I would love to learn more about. Authors like Sam Weinburg and Jason Steinhauer who recently wrote History Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past are writing for a non-academic audience. Both, I think, would call themselves Internet entrepreneurs (Weinburg, p. 8, 2018). Both write for a general audience because it is this audience that needs to acquire the tools to assess what is credible information and what is a potentially dangerous fantasy. This is not an academic debate.

These few paragraphs were written as part of a doctoral paper. The more time I spend with academics, the more I am convinced that we need to have this debate outside of the academy. Over the next few posts, I will include more from this paper in the hope that someone finds this discussion important. Maybe this will encourage more discussion. Otherwise, what value does this piece really have?

This is a problem for everyone, but for educators how we develop 21st-century critical thinking skills is becoming an essential feature of their professional lives. How well do we understand this?


Second Response to Five ways to damage a good school

One of the roles I took very seriously as an administrator was that of the gate-keeper. The administrator needs to shelter staff from unnecessary distractions that take them away from the important job of teaching.

I took this to mean that I had a responsibility to protect staff from the many ‘edufads’ that continually rained down on us from our school board and the ministry. My most recent favourite is Deep Learning, something that still defies any logical explanation. Michael Fullan, Ontario’s education guru has written volumes on this concept and his ideas have filtered down to all the schools in my former board. There is no debate about this concept, all schools are expected to follow the Deep Learning mantra even though most of us have no idea what it is and how the concepts improves or even impacts the learning of our students.

The second of Greg Ashman’s ‘howlers’ that have the potential to damage a school has to do with this ongoing trend in education – Lock yourself into the latest novelty

It is almost impossible for schools to filter out all of the bad ideas. Often, senior managers will have a pet project or enthusiasm that seems pretty reasonable at the time.

We don’t need to belabour the point about Deep Learning, it is simply an example of another fad that needs to play out in our system until it exhausts itself. Then we can all go back to what we were trying to do before – offering an excellent education, devoid of distractions, to our students.

The most recent recruiting poster for the Ottawa Public Board plays on this idea of the deep learner. The poster is based on the idea of the 6C’s another Fullan concept that is usually put out there along with Deep Learning.

While all this looks wonderful on a poster, isn’t this what good teachers have always done? Don’t we want all educated people to collaborate and be globally aware? Would it not be more honest and appropriate to say that the goal of education is to teach concepts in math, science, language arts, history etc that people need to be competent and literate in t0day’s society?

I really like writing that provokes critical thinking and Greg Ashman is doing what good educators have always done. He thinks and he challenges the standard orthodoxy which calls on educators to accept ideas without challenge.

Maybe educators along with their students need to adopt a goal of really thinking critically for the academic year ahead.

Thanks for the challenge Greg!