It Really IS about the Questions!

The other day the Junior State of America debaters came to me to ask for my help in determining reliable information. They were unprepared for the arguments they were getting from students in other groups who were quoting statistics and other evidence that these students felt were unreliable. They wanted tools to have in their back pocket to help them pick reliable websites.

When we sat down together and began our discussion, I found out that what they really wanted was for me to give them a list of “reliable” sites that they could go to for their debates. I explained that reliability is one of those things that comes with baggage, and that perspective, authority, and purpose are all intertwined. They wanted to know more.

Their practice topic was: “Resolved that the United States screen immigrants for extremist ideological views.”

Where does one start when we have no knowledge about the topic at all, and we are expected to form an opinion? I suggested that we start with questions.

Using a modified Question Formulation Technique (QFT: we dug right in with questions directed to this resolution:

  1. What are extremist views?
  2. How are we screening now?
  3. What kinds of extremist views are there?
  4. What about homegrown extremist views?
  5. How might we screen immigrants differently?
  6. What would happen if we didn’t let anyone in anymore?
  7. Don’t we already have a good system?
  8. Why are we re-building something that isn’t broken?
  9. How do we know if it’s broken or not?

Because we did this over lunch time, we didn’t have much time to dig deeper. But these were the questions that they had – and they are all questions that we talked about them having to know the answers to – or find evidence of – before they even dug into the why, how, what if, or what-do-you-mean questions.

From here we looked at the school resources, Wikipedia, and government sites with one of these topics to see how each handled it. Using a phrase that Jole Seroff from Castilleja High School introduced to me, “terms of art,” I explained that in order to debate well, they need to know all the words and big ideas surrounding their topic of immigration and immigrant screening. Once they had a grasp on the big ideas, they could decide how to best represent any side, and they began to understand that they need to read from a wide variety of sources – across a wide swath of political views.

Taking a concept from the cyberbullying community, “Take 5” (“Take 5 before you post”), I’ve been suggesting to students that now is the time to move out of their comfort zone of accepting every document they run across as true or reliable and “take 5” minutes to ask:

  • Who wrote this?
  • For what purpose was this written?
  • How do they want me to feel?
  • How do they want me to act?
  • What are the sources of their numbers, charts, or other evidence?
  • Can we trace them back to their creator?… and then question the purpose and authority of those numbers also.

Only one lunch period. But what a wonderful way to kick off their confidence for generating a sense of the whole topic by asking the questions they didn’t know they had. By sorting them, prioritizing them, and assigning the responsibilities of searching for answers to bring back to the group, these students are beginning to understand that information is contextual, and that “reliable” is a pliant concept.

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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