Developing that critical ability

In an increasingly complex, fragmented and interconnected world, how do we know what is “true”? Can we believe what we find online at all, or should we rather take up a severely critical attitude to sources until their trustworthiness has been proven? Furthermore, how do we teach our students to exert the necessary caution when evaluating sources?

Being able to take a critical stance to what appears to be credible is a matter of both maturity as well as being able to question what we see. Thus, it is pivotal that teachers discuss credibility of sources with students on a continuous basis. For example, is it OK to use Wikipedia as a source of information? Research has shown that teachers and students display varying attitudes to the use of Wikipedia; teachers being more sceptical, whereas students find this source to be both easy to use and informative (Blikstad-Balas & Høgenes, 2014). Clearly, students are more pragmatic in their attitudes, while teachers question the quality and credibility of Wikipedia, and many teachers omit to draw attention to and explicitly discuss this source of information.

In a similar vein, Frønes and Narvhus (2012) discuss reading literacy and students’ ability to critically assess the adequacy and credibility of online resources, emphasizing the importance of work aimed at increasing this ability in the classroom. Young learners lack the background experience of adults, and tend to be more naïve to what they perceive to constitute reliable sources (number of “likes”, clicks, etc.). It is thus essential that teachers encourage students to always ask questions and compare sources. It may be OK to use Wikipedia as an easy-to-use starting point for locating information, but what do other independent sources say? And which sources can we trust? For instance, can sources be affected by special interests – do they aim to influence us out of particular commercial or social interests? How many sources do we need to check before we can confirm the reliability of data with reasonable certainty?

I never cease asking those important questions!

Developing young learners’ ability to critically assess credibility is a process; it requires that teachers revisit the topic at regular intervals and always encourage students to be above all inquisitive. Information posted on the internet may be manipulated – pictures can lie – and authors and sites may provide information out of self-interest. Also trustworthy sites can be hacked and manipulated, and this poses even more stringent demands on students’ ability to compare and contrast sources.

Developing a critical stance towards sources takes time; it is not something which is achieved by addressing such issues once or twice in class. But why not utilize such matters as an excellent opportunity for facilitating authentic conversations in the target language in the ESL classroom? Sociocultural theories of learning promote conversation as the medium for all learning (Thornbury & Slade, 2006, p. 2), for examining values, attitudes and beliefs. In short – let’s keep talking about it.

Blikstad-Balas, M., & Høgenes, T. (2014). Wikipedias inntog på kildelista – holdninger blant lærere og elever til Wikipedia i en skolekontekst. Acta Didactica Norge, 8(1), 1-17.

Frønes, T. S., & Narvhus, E. K. (2012). Egnet og troverdig? Elevers kildevurdering på nett. In T. E. Hauge & A. Lund (Eds.), Små skritt eller store sprang. Om digitale tilstander i skolen (pp. 58-84). Oslo: Cappelen Damm Akademisk.

Missie. Hello, I’m Dusty and you should be petting me. Downloaded 9 May 2016. Online image. Retrieved from

Thornbury, S., & Slade, D. (2006). Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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