Keep Information-Gathering Honest By Triangulation

from Educators' eZine

I write and publish a daily newsletter designed to promote discussion of current events in the classroom. Several months ago a district administrator asked how he could trust the quality of the newsletter since he had not previewed it. Obviously it would be impossible to preview the newsletter before purchasing a subscription. In order for it to remain relevant the newsletter must be written each day and distributed immediately. After all, it is a current events newsletter.

The administrator's question prompted me to think. In asking schools to purchase subscriptions up front, I am asking them to do something to which they are not accustomed. When districts purchase textbooks they first complete a formal review process, in which they preview a number of books. Many states permit districts to purchase books only from an approved list. This textbook review process often takes a year or longer. This review process helps to ensure that the final selection is authoritative. Certainly educators don't want to provide their students with misinformation.

As Karl Fisch's "Shift Happens," contends, we live in exponential times. Knowledge in science and technology doubles ever two years. The affairs of the world, and thus information covered in social studies classes, also change rapidly. Given the speed at which knowledge evolves, many textbooks are outdated before they ever reach the classroom. A quick perusal of several leading textbook companies' science textbooks revealed that nearly all of them were written in 2006 and earlier. These textbooks continue to describe Pluto as the ninth planet. The information contained within them might have been authoritative at one time, but the books are no longer relevant.

Textbooks and textbook review committees cannot keep up with the speed of knowledge change. When I replied to the district administrator, I asked him if he thought that his successor would ever sit on a traditional textbook review committee. If schools are to remain relevant, my suspicion is that by 2015, if not sooner, textbooks and textbook review committees will become relics of the past.

So how will schools select the information resources that replace textbooks? How will they ensure that the information their students encounter is not only relevant, but also authoritative.

Consider the way that individuals purchase newspaper subscriptions. Obviously nobody can know what will appear in a newspaper when they order their subscription. Consumers purchase newspapers with an expectation that quality and style will remain consistent over time. When people purchase subscriptions to The New York Times they don't think about specific stories that the paper will run. Instead they assume that the paper will continue to run articles about major events that have the potential to influence the entire country and/or world. They recognize that the writing is often at a higher level than in many other newspapers. But, hopefully they also recognize that the newspaper is not a perfect source of information.

Though relevant, New York Times' articles are not authoritative. Few high school teachers would allow students to submit research papers that cited only The New York Times as a reference. The case of Jason Blair, the New York Times reporter fired for erroneous reporting in May 2003, proves that not everything written in the newspaper is correct. While Blair blatantly disregarded the protocols of newspaper reporting, innocent reporting mistakes are made on a regular basis. While relevant and timely, New York Times' articles are simply not authoritative.

While few high school teachers would allow students to submit research papers that cited only The New York Times, many high school teachers would allow students to cite that paper as one of several sources. These teachers would likely want their students to triangulate their information. In other words, they would want their students to demonstrate the authority of information in one source by supporting it with relevant information from other sources, information that can be found in any one of hundreds of places on the Internet.

The process of information triangulation reduces the importance of any single source of information, for every source is checked against other sources. Perhaps I should have told the district administrator that while I could vouch for the relevance of the newsletter, I could not guarantee the accuracy and quality of every newsletter. Perhaps I should have told him that his teachers and students should judge the accuracy for themselves by triangulating the information in the newsletter with other relevant information. Triangulation alone provides an opportunity for both relevance and authority.

Email:Andrew Pass

Further Reading

Jayson Blair (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayson_Blair).
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 May 2007.

Fisch, Karl. Did You Know. The Fischbowl (http://thefischbowl.blogspot.com/2006/08/did-you-know.html).
24 May 2007.

Andrew Pass. The Current Events in Education
(http://www.pass-ed.com/blogger.html).

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