How do you know it's right? Resources for fact-checking October 21 2018, 0 Comments

“It must be true. I read it in the newspaper.” Have you ever heard someone say that with a grin and a wink? We all know that one can read just about anything in printed “information” from valid facts to complete fiction. This is true of Montessori materials as well.

In my last post, I urged teachers to fact-check the science materials in their classrooms. Fact-checking is needed for several reasons. It helps teachers make sure that they are giving their children useful, correct information, and this is an important part of preparing the classroom environment. Another and equally important reason for fact-checking is that it helps teachers prepare themselves to guide children’s explorations.

My basic guidelines for verifying facts are these:  1. Look in several valid resources. If you find the same information in several websites or books, you can be more confident that you have the correct facts. 2. Check the dates of your resources. Even websites can be decades old. This is especially important for biology and astronomy where you need recent publications.

Not all subjects need the most recent information. Many aspects of physical science are reasonably stable at the basic level so that older reference books like printed encyclopedias can be useful.  Astronomy has a high rate of change, and you need newer resources for facts in that subject. NASA has educational websites that can be a big help, and there are many good sources of astronomy information on the Internet.

In the life sciences, older texts are useful for the parts of cells and human organ systems. Biological classification, in contrast, has undergone many changes in the last two decades. Guiding adults need to educate themselves about the new classification if children are to get a useful overall picture of the living world, and if they are to explore the current state of biology. All levels, from teacher educators to experienced teachers to newly educated teachers, face this task.

What are good resources for verifying the information in science materials? I often start with a Wikipedia article, but I certainly don’t stop there. There is a lot of confusion about Wikipedia, and some distrust it because of the open nature of the articles. For more information on Wikipedia and how it works, do a Google search for the publication, “Evaluating Wikipedia.” This article will help you determine how much to trust Wikipedia pages. Wikipedia does police itself to a certain degree. Always check that there are references cited to support the information in the article, and then look at the references themselves. Are they reasonably recent? Are they books from academic presses, peer-reviewed articles in science journals, or university-based online content? These are necessary for science pages.

Wikipedia can be a good source for information on classification of life. Its articles may give two schools of thought, the rank-based or Linnaean classification (the traditional one taught in Montessori classrooms) and the newer phylogenetic classification. The rank-based classification is still around, and it is often expanded to include many more ranks and prefixes as the branches of the Tree of Life are discovered. Examples include cohort, infra-, sub-, super-, magn-. That’s too much for beginners.  I usually find the phylogenetic classification (branching diagrams) easier to understand and visualize.

I go from the Wikipedia article to websites that have .edu domains or selected ones ending in .org – the Animal Diversity Web,, for example.  I don’t like websites with ads, and I usually avoid them. See this webpage from Georgetown University Library for evaluating websites: . A reference librarian should be able to help you find reliable books and websites. That’s one of the wonderful benefits of public libraries – the trained professionals that can help you find information.

Other than web-based information, I like to cross check facts with biology textbooks or other books that are no more about five years old. Excellent biology reference books are readily available. For example, DK and Smithsonian have teamed up to produce a number of valuable titles.

What about children’s nonfiction books? Do they need fact-checking? I review many children’s science books. (Sign up for my email list on this website if you would like to see my reviews.) The quality of the information varies, so you really do need to fact-check the books before you put them in the classroom. If a fact doesn’t sound right to you, check it out. I was surprised by a book that said cows eat birds. I found this statement about cows’ diet to be deceiving and likely to foster confusion and misconceptions. It turned out to be correct, but it didn’t give other necessary information – that this is a very minor and sporadic occurrence, and perhaps it is done to satisfy a mineral deficiency. We want to clarify as much as possible, not muddy the waters.

Remember to involve your children in fact-checking. You help them learn how to verify information when you tell them about the resources you used to fact-check publications.

Happy explorations of the non-fictional world!