Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Dangers of NOT Using Wikipedia in the Classroom

Recently I've been working with a social studies teacher on guiding students in exploring how the philosophers Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau influenced the American framers.  Rather than have students try to absorb this information through the textbook or lecture, my colleague really wanted his students to dig into the primary sources of these thinkers.  Suddenly this conquest became more about reading historical documents, thinking like historians, and distinguishing among ideas!  

As we tossed around ideas for guiding students toward these goals, one idea we discussed was allowing students to do some crowdsourcing in order to gain a basic background knowledge.  I even suggested letting students use Wikipedia as one possible source of information for the crowdsourcing, even though I knew it would make my colleague cringe!  I was right; he CRINGED!   His reaction really caused me to reflect upon my suggestion.  Have I lost my mind?!  So I'm thinking out loud here, and I worry about the effects of NOT using Wikipedia in the classroom.  

If we don't show students how to use Wikipedia as a starting point and then move beyond it, I worry they won't understand how to move beyond Wikipedia when they are learning on their own. We certainly live in a sound bite culture, and Wikipedia provides conveniently condensed information on so many topics.   It's a fantastic place to build some basic understanding of the who, what, where,  and when, so that students can launch into deeper questions of why, how, which, etc. These questions should propel them into more complex texts.  Why don't we model this for students?  If we don't, I fear we will raise a generation of thinkers content to stop at the simplest of sources like Wikipedia and SparkNotes. 

Wikipedia is a petri dish swimming with questions about currency, relevance, bias, authorship, and more.  In the information age, it's essential our students are savvy with evaluating information. Because of the nature of how Wikipedia entries are created, it is the perfect environment to teach students to question the information they are reading.  Can the information be verified on other credible sites?  What information is missing? 

While Wikipedia is straightforward, it's not reading for dummies.  Wikipedia has mastered arranging information with headings, bullets, and tables of contents in order to make it accessible.  It's a great model of how to use these text features to guide readers through information.  But if you do a google search for a topic and filter results by reading level, surprisingly, Wikipedia entries frequently show up under the advanced reading level.  

Wikipedia equals opportunity. If anyone can contribute to this open encyclopedia, why don't we give our students that opportunity?  What better way for them to understand how information is created on the internet and why it's important to always be critical consumers of content?  For more information on how to contribute to Wikipedia, check out Contributing to Wikipedia.

So have I lost my mind? I'd love to hear your thoughts via the comments box below, Twitter, or email. 


  1. Oddly enough, I couldn't agree more. I tell students that as Wikipedia is generally listed first in a search, it's a great starting place to become informed about a topic. And generally the more technical the topic, the more reliable the information. I don't recommend citing it in a paper, but I do encourage skimming it to gain a background information. And if the content seems fishy, it's a good exercise in evaluation and critical thinking. The danger lies in stopping at Wikipedia.

    1. Glory, Thanks for sharing your thoughts! As a librarian, your opinion is very credible, and I'm glad to know I haven't completely lost all sense of rigor! I agree about not citing in a paper...great point!