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In The Classroom, Facts Still Matter: Why Teaching Students to Use Evidence is More Important Than Ever

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    Anne Vilen

This piece by EL Education writer Anne Vilen was originally published by Teachers College Record.

The author of this commentary argues in favor of teaching evidence-based thinking; it underscores the relevance of education for creating an informed citizenry capable of thinking critically and voting purposefully.

In the years since most states adopted new and more rigorous standards for literacy, my colleagues and I at EL Education have been coaching educators on how to teach students to use evidence in support of their claims. Now some public leaders have claimed “[t]here’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts” (Berrien, 2016). Add to that the debate about alternative facts (Kazan, 2017), and I find myself in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Are facts necessary to win serious arguments? Do facts matter more in classroom debates than they do in political debates? Do they matter in students’ writing? If we educators still believe they do, how do we convince students saturated in social media and the 24–7 news cycle that evidence, not hyperbole or shouting, should still pull the levers of leadership and decision making?

In my work teaching educators, I have always made sure to point out that persuasive speech and even propaganda are not pejorative. A useful rubric from ReadWriteThink helps students differentiate between argument, persuasion, and propaganda (2005). But it’s important to remember that many students will find a professional calling to write persuasively for partisan organizations, make their living crafting propaganda for successful ad agencies, work as journalists, or become academics. Students who are to be college- and career-ready need to learn and practice writing for varied purposes and audiences.

At the same time, according to “The Special Place of Argument in the Standards” in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards (2015, p. 24), teaching students to use evidence prepares them for the argument culture of college and careers. Even a great advertising campaign strategy must be justified with hard evidence that the product or service under consideration will sell. In coaching teachers all over the country and in EL Education’s highly rated, nationally recognized ELA curriculum (EL Education, 2014), we emphasize that argument is “not . . . ‘wrangling’ but . . . a serious and focused conversation among people who are intensely interested in getting to the bottom of things cooperatively” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2015, p. 24, emphasis in original). We have asserted that such an argument has the power to change people’s minds. People will follow the evidence.

Arguably, as journalists (Lazarick, 2017) and commentators (Rampell, 2016) have noted, the idea that facts matter is no longer a given. What does the shift from truth to truthiness mean for K–12 teachers? What should we educators tell students besides you’ll get a better grade or I expect accurate citations and credible sources? Specifically, what’s the case for using evidence?

Teaching students to use evidence is how we teach them to be citizen scholars. However, it’s more than just that. It is also how we begin to restore the relevance of American public education in the democratic landscape.

USING EVIDENCE SUSTAINS THE DEMOCRACY OF THE CLASSROOM

Justin Davidson, writing in New York Magazine, argues that evidence undergirds our nation’s democratic stability:

The nation’s debt has value because the world believes its treasury to be sound. Official documents certify the truth of their contents—an American’s place of birth, for instance—and allow its citizens to travel freely around the world. The democracy stands because its people assume their votes will be tabulated using objective math. This system has endured abuses, hypocrisies, violence, and co-optation precisely because it sits on the bedrock of hard, verifiable evidence. (Davidson, 2016)

Similarly, evidence keeps democratic discourse in our classrooms civil and fair. When class discussion devolves into a shouting match, it benefits no one. Importantly, to create a culture where students support their claims with credible evidence, teachers must provide criteria for what constitutes credibility. Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit is a good place to start. He says, “[w]herever possible there must be an independent confirmation of ‘the facts’” (Open Culture, 2016). Once all players are following the same rules, a dialogue supported by reliably sourced data helps to take the sting out of classroom debate.

EVIDENCE IS THE MOST ENDURING AND VALUABLE COIN IN THE WRITER’S PURSE

If fake news is a forged bill, then facts are authentic gold coins. When Cameron Harris, a new college graduate, decided to make some money by generating fake news stories on a web domain he purchased for $5, readers literally bought it (Shane, 2017). However, people who would have known about the event if it really happened and a discerning reporter followed clues back to the source and dismantled his fiction within a month. The same situation regularly happens in school. When teachers or students question the validity of sources and demand credible evidence, plagiarism is almost always readily and quickly exposed. A fake news story and a student essay glued together with squishy sources or unsubstantiated opinions will fool some of the people some of the time. However, ultimately the writer’s claims will be examined under the light of reason and the truth will come out. On the other hand, if the evidence is strong (i.e., consistent, unbiased by funding or affiliation, and there’s a lot of it collected over a long period of time) it’s like those gold coins. You can bite into it and taste the validity of the claim.

EVIDENCE EMPOWERS STUDENTS TO CHOOSE AND TO ACT

Most importantly, teaching students to use evidence enables them not only to earn the high grades they need for college, but also to develop as ethical human beings who lead their own learning and decision making. Students who can both critically question evidence they read and wisely marshal evidence in their speaking and writing are empowered to act as informed citizens. They are less likely to be manipulated by either side of the political spectrum. They are also more likely to inquire further, analyze the underlying substance, and ideally click to see the full story. They will ask who paid for this? and what makes this person an expert?
 
Steadied by their intellectual tools and steeped in a culture of civil dialogue, students are also less likely to withdraw into the babble of their own bubble. They are more likely to engage those they may have initially disagreed with by asking questions and listening deeply for the evidence. These learners are more likely to find common ground and change their minds when the evidence warrants.

Finally, students are more likely to act on the evidence they have collected to influence the understanding and actions of others. You can see dozens of examples of students using evidence to advocate publicly for civic action on Models of Excellence, a digital collection of high-quality student work (EL Education, 2016). Here are two examples:

Teaching students to use evidence is how we teach them to be citizen scholars. However, it’s more than just that. It is also how we begin to restore the relevance of American public education in the democratic landscape. When schools empower all students to stake a claim in what happens next and why, according to reasons and facts, they produce a citizenry worthy of the vote. These are citizens who engage in civil conversation and sound decision making from the classroom to the halls of Congress.

References

Berrien, H. (2016, December 2). Listen: Trump surrogate says facts don’t exist. The Daily Wire. Retrieved from http://www.dailywire.com/news/11274/listen-trump-surrogate-says-facts-dont-exist-hank-berrien

Common Core State Standards Initiative (2015). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix A: Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards, Glossary of Key terms. Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

Davidson, J. (2016, December 28). Donald Trump’s war against facts. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/12/donald-trumps-war-against-facts.html

EL Education (2014). Highly rated by educators. Common Core success. EL Education. Retrieved from http://commoncoresuccess.eleducation.org/what-educators-are-saying

EL Education (2015, December 4). Policing in America: Using powerful topics and tasks to challenge, engage, and empower students. EL Education. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/147860127

EL Education. (2016). Resources. EL Education. Retrieved from http://modelsofexcellence.eleducation.org/resources

Kazan, L. (2017, January 27). Truthiness and alternative facts: meaning is a moveable feast. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/truthiness-and-alternative-facts-meaning-is-a-moveable-feast-71900

Lazarick, L. (2017, January 3). For some journalists, facts don’t matter anymore. The Business Monthly. Retrieved from http://www.bizmonthly.com/for-some-journalists-facts-don%E2

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Open Culture. (2016, April 11). Carl Sagan presents his “baloney detection kit”: 8 tools for skeptical Thinking. Open Culture. Retrieved from
http://www.openculture.com/201...

Rampell, C. (2016, October 17). When the facts don’t matter, how can democracy survive? The Washington Post. Retrieved from
http://www.washingpost.com/opi...

ReadWriteThink (2005). Argument, persuasion, or propaganda? rubric. ReadWriteThink. Retrieved from
http://www.readwritethink.org/...

Shane, S. (2017, January 18). From headline to photograph, a fake news masterpiece. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html?_r=0