Yesterday, Ken Jennings had an blog post about how schools are starting to ban wikipedia use.
He makes some good points. I agree with them and reiterate them here with some of my own thoughts added.
Ken points out that this is really nothing new. Teachers have been telling students not to use the encyclopedia as a source since the dawn of time. But what are we really teaching students by “banning” the use of wikipedia or an encyclopedia? It seems to me that we should be teaching students the different functions between first and secondary sources. Encyclopedia have value. They summarize vasts amounts of information. They provide good, general introductions to subjects. And as Ken points out, a encyclopedia like wikipedia can provide up-to-date information on subjects, or provide good general introductions to subjects that are not normally covered by other sources.
Banning wikipedia implies that there is no value to it. It is better to teach the value of sources. Why are primary sources the best? What purpose do they serve? I would argue further that with the budget cuts that school and public libraries face, it is getting more difficult for high school students to find primary sources in their libraries. When I was in high school in Ms. Thatcher’s chemistry class, I grew very interested in chemistry, in particular, how quantum mechanics relates to chemistry (which wasn’t well explained in our class). I discovered that the definitive book on the subject was written by Linus Pauling. The book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond was not available in the high school library. Nor was it available in my public library. So I settled on various encyclopedia articles on the subject. Now, granted, I wasn’t writing a paper or citing sources, but even if I was, I would not have been able to get to the primary source given the resources available to me at the time. The encyclopedia provided a general overview, while citing primary material (and one of the first books cited, was Pauling’s book).
Teach kids to make good decisions about their research and they will make the best use of all of the tools available to them. There will always be kids that are just plain lazy. But I don’t think banning a source of information to prevent the lazy kids from using it does anyone any good. (You might as well ban the whole Internet, Cliffs Notes, any every other possible summary of information on a given subject.)