Fake Facts About Explorers Help Teach Research Skills

Fake Facts About Explorers Help Teach Research Skills

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If you Google the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, one of the top results you'll get is a web page from the website All About Explorers that states:

"In 1519, at the age of only 27, he was supported by several wealthy businessmen, including Marco Polo, Bill Gates, and Sam Walton, to finance an expedition to the Spice Islands."

While some facts in this information are accurate -namely the year of Magellan's expedition to the Spice Islands- there are others that might set off alarms. Educators would know that Microsoft's Bill Gates or Wal-Mart's Sam Walton would not be around for another 500 years, but would students?

There is recent research that suggests that many students in our middle schools, high schools, or college would not question the information given about the life of this 15th Century explorer. After all, this website looks like a credible source!

That is exactly the problem that the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) discovered in a report titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning.

This report released November 2016 tracked the research skills of students in middle, high school or college using a series of prompts. The study "prototyped, field tested, and validated a bank of assessments that tap civic online reasoning." (see 6 Ways to Help Students Spot Fake News)

The results of SHEG's study indicated that many students are not prepared to distinguish accurate from inaccurate accounts or decide when a statement is relevant or irrelevant to a given point. SHEG suggested "that when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped" pronouncing our nation's students' ability to research in one word: "bleak".

But that AllAboutExplorers website is one bogus website that should not be shut down.

Use The AllAboutExplorers Website for Internet Research Practice

Yes, there is plenty of misinformation on site. For example, on the webpage dedicated to Juan Ponce de Leon, there is the reference to an American multinational cosmetics, skin care, fragrance, and personal care company that was founded in 1932:

"In 1513 he was hired by Revlon, a cosmetic company, to search for the Fountain of Youth (a body of water that would enable you to look young forever)."

In truth, the misinformation on the AllAboutExplorers website is intentional, and all of the misinformation on the site was created to serve an important educational purpose-to better prepare students in intermediate and middle schools to understand how to research accurately and completely using evidence that is valid, timely, and relevant. The about page on the site states:

"AllAboutExplorers was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet. Although the Internet can be a tremendous resource for gathering information about a topic, we found that students often did not have the skills to discern useful information from worthless data."

The AllAboutExplorers site was created in 2006 by educator Gerald Aungst,( Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Mathematics in the Cheltenham School District in Elkins Park, PA) and Lauren Zucker,(Library Media Specialist in Centennial School District). Their collaboration 10 years earlier confirms what the SHEG research has recently concluded, that most students cannot tell good information from bad.

Aungst and Zucker explain on the website that they created AllAboutExplorers in order "to develop a series of lessons for students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile."

These educators wanted to make a point about finding useless information on a site that was designed to look believable. They note that "all of the Explorer biographies here are fictional" and that they purposefully mixed facts with "inaccuracies, lies, and even downright absurdities."

Some of the absurdities that have been mixed with facts on famous explorers on this website include:

  • Lewis & Clark:"… in 1795, they became the charter subscribers to the National Geographic Magazine. Both were so mesmerized by the stunning color photographs in the glossy publication that they determined-completely separately-to become world-famous explorers. It wasn't until 1803, when Thomas Jefferson saw an intriguingly brief posting by Napoleon Bonaparte on Craig's List for a large tract of land: For Sale: Louisiane, a tract of land in the middle of the North America. Acreage unknown. Contains the fourth longest river in the world. €60,000,000 OBO, local shipping included. Serious inquiries only.
  • Christopher Columbus: "He knew he had to make this idea of sailing, using a western route, more popular. So, he produced and appeared on infomercials which aired four times daily. Finally, the King and Queen of Spain called his toll-free number and agreed to help Columbus."

The authors have provided readers the cautions not to use this site as a source of reference for research. There is even a satiric "update" on the site that mentions a lawsuit settlement on a (fake) claim that the information unfairly caused failing grades for students who used the information via the website.

The authors can be followed on Twitter: @aaexplorers. Their website confirms SHEG report's that states there "are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not." In addition to the elaborate hoaxes on explorers there are more serious and credible lesson plans designed to introduce students to the skills and concepts of good Internet researching:

  • Just Because It's Out There Doesn't Mean It's Good
  • So How Do You Find the Good Stuff?
  • Google, What?
  • Where Exactly Am I?
  • How Could They Be So Wrong?

Research Standards for Social Studies

Research is not exclusive to any discipline, but the National Council for the Social Studies has outlined specific standards for research in their College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History

There is the standard: Dimension 4, Communicating Conclusions for grades 5-12, the intermediate and middle school grades levels (5-9) that could benefit from the lessons on the AllAboutExplorers:

  • D4.2.3-5. Construct explanations using reasoning, correct sequence, examples, and details with relevant information and data.
  • D4.2.6-8. Construct explanations using reasoning, correct sequence, examples, and details with relevant information and data, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the explanations.
  • D4.1.9-12. Construct arguments using precise and knowledgeable claims, with evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging counterclaims and evidentiary weaknesses.

The European explorers are generally studied in grades 5 as part of American Colonial History; in grade 6 & 7 as part of European exploration of Latin and Central America; and in grades 9 or 10 in the study of colonialism in global studies classes.

The website AllAboutExplorers provides educators an opportunity to help students learn how to negotiate the Internet in research. Teaching students to better explore the web can be improved by introducing students to this website on famous explorers.


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