Scottish teacher encourages pupils to use “unreliable” Wikipedia


By Cara Sulieman

A SCOTTISH teacher has said that school kids should be encouraged to use Wikipedia for school research, despite doubts over the accuracy of the information on the site.

Ollie Bray, deputy head teacher at Musselburgh Grammar, said that pupils should use it to learn how to evaluate the credibility of information.

But the online encyclopaedia has a reputation for being unreliable as anyone can edit the information it carries, and parent groups say it makes their kids “lazy”.

There have been a number of high profile mistakes on the site – just last week Thierry Henry’s entry had to be locked as angry users vandalised his profile after his handball during the France Ireland football game.


But Ollie insists Wikipedia is a valuable teaching tool – and reckons it is better to teach pupils how to use it properly rather than ban it.

He said: “We, as teachers, should be looking at these disclaimers and working with young people to discuss why articles are disputed or contradict themselves.

“If we start with the belief that everything is subject to opinion, then we can work on how to validate it.”

He suggests teachers and pupils study the “discussion”, “source” and “history” tabs on the website.

The discussion tab will show the youngsters how much debate goes into reaching a compromise when changing disputed facts.

Better access

And he thinks that these skills should be taught alongside internet safety and responsible use, as biased information could also be seen as “inappropriate content”.

He said: “There is extreme content on the internet, but kids only find it because they go looking for it.”

And the teacher – who is currently working for Learning and Teaching Scotland as a national adviser for emerging technologies – also wants kids to have better access to sites such as YouTube, which is banned in some schools and allowed in others.

He said: “Why is it fair that children in East Lothian can get access to hundreds of hours on Channel 4, National Geographic or the Scottish Parliament, when other schools and teachers have not got access to these resources?

“It means that children don’t get to benefit from it, or the teacher or head has to spend time procuring resources which are available for free.”

IT savvy

But the internet site has been blamed for making Scottish schoolchildren lazy, with parents worried that their kids are relying on someone else to do all the hard work for them.

Eleanor Coner from the Scottish Parent Teacher Council said: “Children are very IT-savvy, but they are rubbish at researching.

“The sad fact is most children these days use libraries for computers, not the books. We accept that as a sign of the times, but schools must teach pupils not to believe everything they read.

“It’s dangerous when the internet is littered with opinion and inaccurate information which could be taken as fact.”

Although Wikipedia is edited by its users, the site monitors the changes and responds to inaccuracies when it can.

A disclaimer on the site says: “While Wikipedia articles generally attain a good standard after editing, it is important to note that fledgling, or less well monitored, articles may be susceptible to vandalism and insertion of false information.”

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  1. Thank you for posting this – just to clarify a couple of points.

    I agree with Eleanor Coner that schools do need to teach children to question and verify everything that they read on line. In the same way they should question and read of-line sources as well. That was the point of my comments Wikipedia – we need to teach students to use it responsibly. My extended piece on this is here:

    Secondly Children are generally bad a researching. But this is because many schools do not build the required emphasis on modern research techniques into their curriculum. I am still constantly surprised, for example, that children are not being shown how to use advance search features on sites like Google or the Quintura visual search. I a also surprised when I am out talking to teacher than many of them have never heard of ‘Google Alerts’ and other valuable modern research tools that we should be teaching our young people about.

    Finally, I don’t have a problem with children going to the libraries to use the computers. School libraries need to change to become learning centers. There should still be ‘texts’ but Scottish educators need to remember that A Curriculum for Excellence no longer defines ‘text’ as just books.

    I am happy to elaborate on any of these points…

  2. The more I read from Ollie bray, the more I like.

    What is perhaps wrong is that children are encouraged to simply accept as fact the things that they find in printed books. The unreliability of wikipedia makes it a valuable lesson about the nature of knowledge itself.

    Knowledge is a moving target, and people can be wrong, despite the very best of intentions. Much better to encourage children to understand that what someone says reflects their own experience and view of the world as much as it reflects actual fact, and that ultimately, the answer to each and every statement of fact should be “where’s the evidence?”, “show me the proof?”, “what are your sources?”.

    As for the misplaced censorship of the Internet in schools – hear hear. Technological solutions in place to ‘protect’ children by trying to shield them from the dangers that exist miss the entire point – that the world is not a safe place, and it’s better to teach children to recognise danger than to try to shield them from it.


  3. Eleanor Coner contradicts herself when she says that internet sites such as Wikipedia make children lazy and they are ‘rubbish at researching while we must teach them not to believe everything they read. That is precisely why teaching them to use Wikipedia is crucial, to make them understand that everything is subjective to a degree, and that while the information on Wikipedia can never be 100% accurate, it is more accurate and more current than most sources of information because of its collaborative nature.

  4. I totally agree with Ollie’s view. We should be teaching a range of skllls and validating a range of sources is a vital skill which NEEDS to be taught. Yes we know that some articles on Wikipedia are not 100% accurate so why not use it as a baseline and then research from there to show how to backup your research.

    All too often school are looking to ban websites and resources instead of educating pupils on how best to use them.

  5. At an RSA event around a year ago, an audeince contributor who holds a senior role for Encyclopedia Britannica referred to research that had found accuracy levels of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica are comparable. Wish I’d asked for the research reference.

  6. Teachers use plenty of ‘unreliable’ sources everyday: they’re called textbooks, video materials, newspapers, their colleagues etc. etc.
    One particularly important aspect of modern geography teaching is the development of a critical ‘geographical lens’ to see the world through – this means that students need to look below the surface, and compare a range of different sources of ‘facts’.
    Students should be involved in constructing knowledge rather than being passive recipients – something that Wikipedia allows.
    Ollie was clear about his reasons for using Wikipedia, which were not only valid but connected young people with the technology which forms their milieu.
    A BECTa report published earlier this week supports the importance of this ‘critical’ use of ICT:

  7. “…littered with opinion and inaccurate information which could be taken as fact”.

    Hasn’t this been a problem with the mass media for generations already? Millions have access to resources like ‘The Sun’ for example. I agree; discuss the validity of the source, not ban it.

  8. when I was at university nearly half a century ago, our Physics professor deliberately recommend a text book with several very glaring errors simply to teach us not to believe everything we read.

  9. I agree that teachers should be using wikipedia as a tool in learning. It is a valuable tool that especially when used with a wide range of other sources of information. The printed work is often biased, inaccurate and opinionated. For example, newspaper articles have been used as a legitimate source of information for years.

    The key point here is that wikipedia and YouTube are tools, not the only, or even THE way we should teach. Yes, wikipedia is full of errors and that is the beauty of such sites – we ofetn challenge pupils to spot them or even to rewrite a more accurate atricle.

    In addition, it’s vital that young people have access to such sites so that they are able to explore them effectively in a safe environment.

    For those that continue to be sceptical, I would invite them into my classroom so that they can see how these tools are used.

  10. This is a none story which seems to assume that the educational status quo is to reject tools like Wikipedia . When in fact most teachers and even journallists will make dailly use of wikipedia as a first point of reference with all the caveats on the reliability of information.

    It would be great to see Scottish learners doing thorough research and contributing to things like wikipedia.

    The main challenge we still have is getting all these useful resources into schools .
    The internet is a fantastic source for learning and networking and should be opened up to learners as far as possible .

    An interesting subject for an article would be around the useful resources for learning that are still blocked in Schools . Comparing access in East Lothian and other parts of Scotland woiuld be a useful place to start.

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