STEM & the Library

confirmation bias

It is very common for History and English teachers to arrive at the library doorstep looking to collaborate, but a little less likely for Science and Math teachers. As a curriculum and literacy nerd, I am always looking for the intersection of STEM subjects and research, because I believe fervently that literacy across the curriculum improves student learning.

So when my 7th grade teacher and I had the opportunity to join an ISKME (Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education) initiative that paired STEM teachers with library resources, we jumped. The goal was to create a research-based project that used Open Educational Resources. Together, we designed a unit that immersed students in the study of confirmation bias.

To understand confirmation bias, one has to acknowledge that we all have biases, something most people do not want to admit. But confirmation bias is a little more complex–in confirmation bias, we glean information, read and interpret data, dismiss statistics, or just push a little to make thing say what we want. This is obviously a troublesome practice in science.

We started the unit by having students read two articles: one saying climate change is real; the other saying it wasn’t, both using data to prove their points. We then did a close reading activity where students pulled and broke down the data, assessing its credibility. They drew conclusions that the points made in the “Climate Change Is Not Real” article either did not have data to support it or pulled small pieces of data from long term collections, making it unreliable. They quickly realized–this is what bias looks like.

The following day, students moved around to different stations, reading case studies, looking at cartoons, and taking part in small experiments to solidify their understanding of why and how confirmation bias exists. By the end of that class, they were ready to apply their knowledge.

Students then spent time on looking for science issues that were relevant to their lives or that they were interested in. Topics like–Are vaccinations safe? Should animals be used for experimentation? Is vegetarianism a preferred diet? Should we use alternative energy? Are cell phones safe? They took a stance and found data that supports their stance. But then they had to pull data that supported the other side. From this point on, they were in an internal struggle–which data was the correctly-used data?

In the end, students drew cartoons or wrote paragraphs that showed how data could be used to support both arguments. Starting the year like this was powerful–they have the mindset to think like critical scientists. But what surprised us most was that they began to apply this understanding of confirmation bias to their greater world–politics, school issues, the news. We received an email from a parent saying that the subject came up over dinner and she was so grateful for their conversation and how this work has extended itself into her child’s understanding of the world.

I have never walked away from co-teaching without becoming a better teacher myself. This time was no exception. My eyes were opened to the inroads scientific thinking has to other curricula, and how relevant the material can (and should) be to students’ lives. The greatest lesson I learned was that science can spark passion, and literacy gives students the route to understand and express those passions. I never considered myself a scientist…until now.

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