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May Issue

Vol 23|No 5|May 2014


What is real?
What is true?
What is credible?

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

As far as we know, there is no image of Joan of Arc available today that was created by anyone who actually saw Joan while she was alive, and yet there are dozens of images available purporting to be Joan, some of them book covers, some advertising movies and others proclaiming her sainthood.


There are heaps of information readily available, but how much of it is believable and trustworthy? How do we teach our students to distinguish between the true and the false? between propaganda and fact?

The validity and reliability of the information become critically important when making treatment choices, selecting products or determining a course of action. School research should frequently engage student in such authentic activities so they can appreciate the importance of credible sources.

Authentic Learning

Fred Newmann's concept of “authentic teaching” involves students in “authentic intellectual work” outside school. Instead of busy work - repetitive tasks that require little thought and involve mere scooping, smushing, memorizing and regurgitating - Newmann's approach immerses students in challenges that demand imagination, resourcefulness, persistence and stamina. They also highlight the importance of credible sources.

Even though some of these activities may be staged or simulated, they still pass the test of authenticity because they meet the following criteria:

  • They are rooted in issues, challenges or decisions that people face in the world.
  • They are genuine.
  • The act of wrestling with these challenges is purposive - saturated with meaning and significance.
  • A student can see a payoff in the future for work well done and skills acquired.

For more information about this approach, consult these two articles:

This article will provide three examples of authentic learning, one applied to a treatment choice, one applied to a product selection and one focused on solving a problem.

Example One - Acne Treatment Choice

Young people are frequent targets of cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies that make promises regarding their skin, their body odor, their dating success and their moods. In evaluating these claims, students might ask what evidence the company provides to prove their ointment will actually take care of their acne without harmful side effects. The following Web site from Sephora might be a great place for students to begin their research.


For young people with severe acne, some doctors have prescribed Acutane. There are serious side effects listed for this medication, and Roche, the manufacturer, stopped making it after losing some big lawsuits, but it also seems to work for some patients. Ask students if they would take such medication after having reviewed the evidence.

What other treatment choices would make good study units? Perhaps the students can suggest follow up studies once they have wrestled with the acne challenge.

Example Two - Product Selection

The Internet provides voluminous data regarding products and services ranging from cars, refrigerators and sound systems to doctors, lawyers and restaurants. Just because there is a huge amount of information does not mean there is sufficient credible evidence upon which to base a decision.

It is not difficult for teachers to select a product that might be of interest to a class and ask them to compare and contrast the digital cameras, smart phones or mountain bikes offered by competing brands.

Another option is to challenge students to compare and contrast local restaurants starting with their Web sites and their reviews on sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor. The ratings of customers can very dramatically and will sometimes shock students with the variance between what they read and what they have experienced personally in those same restaurants.

Example Three - A Course of Action

Problem-based learning asks students to explore an important issue with an eye toward creating an action plan meant to bring about important changes. "Connecting the Dots" provides an extended description of this approach as applied to the question, "What should we do about floods."

There are dozens of issues that lend themselves to this kind of unit.

  • What should we do about local traffic problems?
  • What should we do about pollution in our river?
  • What should we do if our family buys a car with serious safety issues like those recently reported by GM?
  • What is the best way to select a doctor if someone in the family has a serious illness?

As students conduct their research, ask them to pay special attention to the validity and reliability of the sources they will encounter. While many Web sites may offer assistance, how much is trustworthy? GM pretty much ignored thousands of complaints as customers died in defective automobiles.

"Families Of Victims Want GM Prosecuted For Car Defects"

The GM experience and the Roche experience both serve as a warning to students about handling problems consumers may face at the hands of large corporations with products that may do harm. As they explore local issues like flooding and traffic, they may also encounter faulty information from local officials who have an interest in down-playing the seriousness of threats and problems.

Katrina The disaster New Orleans faced when Katrina hit was predicted in advance, but those predictions were ignored by planners and officials. In a similar fashion, local planners allowed much new construction along the banks of the river in Brisbane that was seriously damaged by a January 2011 flood despite promises by developers and others that these units would not be flooded.

Developing an Eye for the Bogus and the Misleading

When reliable information is required to make a smart decision, the capacity to identify false and misleading sources becomes paramount. It is a capacity that must be developed and sharpened like a set of knives. Authentic learning activities like those suggested above provide the opportunity to hone this capacity.






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