Teaching Students To Use Wikipedia
My youngest daughter just completed fourth grade. Here in Indiana, fourth grade is filled will activities about the history of our state. From Little Hoosiers to pioneer days to reports on famous Hoosiers, fourth grade is the time to really get to know our great state.
When my daughter came home and told us she planned to learn about Twyla Tharp, we knew she had a good project to match her interests. Twyla Tharp was a dancer and has become a very well known choreographer. Since both of my daughters dance, learning more about this famous Hoosier was something the entire family was excited about.
And then the search for resources began. The one guideline the teacher had given: you cannot use Wikipedia. No explanation was given, and my daughter didn’t know why she could not use the site; she just knew she was not allowed to use Wikipedia.
As you may know, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. The issue some librarians, researchers and educators have is that since anyone can edit the entries on Wikipedia, you cannot count it as a credible source. There are certainly reports of “vandals” making false changes to entries on Wikipedia. Some of those changes have been to political candidate’s information or to entries about companies. Overall though, the information on Wikipedia is often very accurate, and when inaccurate information is posted, others are quick to correct it.
What struck me when helping my daughter with her project was that many of the resources we found were from personal websites. Other people had compiled information, often from Wikipedia, and reposted it. These sites sometimes had the name of who “wrote” the information, but often there was no author. In my mind, there was nothing that made these pages any more credible than the information on Wikipedia, and yet it was fully allowed as a source. The Wikipedia entry for Twyla Tharp was very useful and was significantly more thorough than anything we found on any other single site, but we couldn’t use it as a source.
I am not advocating that we tell students Wikipedia is the end-all-be-all of source material. But, like many others, I do believe we need to stop the ban on Wikipedia. We need to help students see that any single source can be a good source, but you have to work hard at making sure your source is credible. Students need to know the good and the bad of using any resource so they can make informed decisions about the information they are going to use.
When they complete their research, we should encourage them to make sure Wikipedia is accurate so others can take advantage of what they have learned.
Image courtesy of stock.xchng.