Arsonist Birds Activity Sequence

I have a new and complete three-part activity sequence up on the Four Moves blog. It asks students to delve into whether a story about birds intentionally setting fires is an accurate summary of research cited. It goes through three steps:

  • Evaluating the reporting source.
  • Evaluating the research source.
  • Checking for distortion of the source material.

I won’t go into the steps because I don’t want to foul up the Google Search results for this activity. But I encourage you to start at the beginning and go through the three activities. (Please note that it is meant to be used in a classroom with a facilitator.)

One of the things I’ve built out a bit more in this set of activities is the “skills up front, social impact on the back” approach. Each activity runs the students through very specific skills, but then asks the students to reflect a bit more deeply on the information environment as a whole. Here are some discussion questions we asks students after they check whether the National Post is a “real” newspaper:

  • Neither the National Post nor the reporter has any core expertise in ethno-biology. So why do we trust the National Post more than a random statement from a random person?
  • Why do you think that newspapers have such a good reputation for truthfulness and care compared to the average online site? What sort of economic incentives has a newspaper historically had to get things right that a clickbait online site might not have had?
  • How do we balance our need for traditional authoritative sources with our desire to include diverse voices and expertise? How do we make sure we are not excluding valuable online-only sources? What are the dangers of a newspaper-only diet of news?

And here is a question we ask after we have the students read the arsonist birds article — which is really about science having ignored indigenous and professional expertise:

  • One question the journal article raises is the way that professional and indigenous expertise is not always valued by science. How can we, as people seeking the best information, value academic research while respecting non-academic expertise when appropriate? What’s a good example of when professional or indigenous expertise on an issue might be preferable to academic expertise?

This stuff takes forever to put together, unfortunately, because one thing we’re trying to do is be very careful about tone, and make sure we get students to think about the incentives around information production without allowing them the easy shortcut of cynicism. We also are quite aware that the biggest worry we face is not that students will consume disinformation, but that they may consume no civically-oriented news at all. So in other sections we use the follow-up to make the case for considered and intentional news consumption (and again, news consumption that is less focused on political hobbyism).

In any case, I think it’s a solid sequence, and I hope you’ll try going through it. It uses a password for the “solutions” as a way to rebuff search engines and slow students down. The password is “searchb4share”. Try it out!


2 thoughts on “Arsonist Birds Activity Sequence

  1. Thanks for doing these. In the past, when I had some time in class, I picked something from your work and had students work on it – and it helped whet their appetite for your book which they read later. I should probably circle back to doing more after they’ve read the book – then we can trace our steps, and practice them.

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