A Nephew Questions

By Wong Kah Wei


My 15-year old nephew, Sam, asked me a question when he came to visit one Sunday. “Kuma, how do you know if a source is reliable?” My heart melted. All those chats we had on what I do at the library teaching information literacy skills finally paid off!

It seems Sam was writing an assignment and had to show that he had found a reliable source for a statistic. He had already checked on timeliness of the source and he had found two sources to compare and was looking for another. He was already triangulating but didn’t know he was doing it.

Instead of jumping into ascertaining whether the sources he found were reliable or not, I tried an exercise which I do with my students. This is an easy learning activity to guide students to determine authoritativeness of a source and questioning to dig deeper.

First, I gave my nephew a scenario:

X says to Y, “Eh, Z said he has no money ah.”  Y quickly goes to W and says, “Z has no money. We better lend Z some money.” Then, W asks, “How do you know that Z has no money?”

Here is where I asked Sam what he would do to confirm that Z has no money. Sam chuckled, “Go and ask Z, lah!” “Yes, always check with the original source. X is only the secondary source. He heard it from Z. Is Z the original and primary source of information?” I said, slipping in some information literacy bits. “Actually, Z isn’t the original source. The bank is! Y should check with the bank,” Sam responded. I pushed a little further and asked, “What’s the difference between getting the information from the bank and getting it from Z? Which is a more reliable source?”

“The bank,” Sam replied quite confidently. “The bank has Z’s bank account. The bank knows whether Z has money in his account or not. Z may not know how to check his account properly and may think he has no money. Maybe he is wrong.” So basically, Sam knew that the bank held the “raw data” and Z could have misinterpreted the “data” and concluded incorrectly. The original source has the primary set of data which has not been analyzed or interpreted. The secondary source would have analyzed and interpreted data.

So far, Sam was doing quite well. I decided to up the ante.

“Should W lend money to Z?” I asked. “If Z has no money, should lend him lah,” he replied. “But how do we know if Z does not have a big house or own land or have gold bars stashed somewhere? No money in the bank does not mean he is not rich, you know,” I said. Sam paused and wondered aloud, “Actually, did Z ask them to lend him money? He didn’t, right?” I always knew Sam had it in him.

Sam’s responses led me to move on to talk about questioning and not just accepting what we hear or read. So, some of the questions that could be asked were – “So what if Z did not have any money? Does he need any money? Why does he need money?… etc”

Sam and I went back to the two sources he wanted to verify. We both talked about them and concluded they were both reliable as they were articles from an educational institution and a medical academy.

Sam was reading the articles closely and tried to figure out what they meant and how to write his assignment. So, we went back to questioning. I asked him whether he remembered 5W 1H questions. One of the articles stated that X% of teens in Singapore were addicted to social media. We decided to question this statement to help Sam understand and write. Sam asked the “What” questions first – “What does “addicted” mean? What is social media? Does social media include TikTok videos, etc?” He also got the “How” questions done quite quickly but needed some help with the “When” and “Who” questions. “When” isn’t just about when something occurred but could also include duration of time and frequency of occurrence (eg. How many hours does a teen use social media per day?). For the “Who” question, he asked whether teens and adolescents were of the same age group.

By then, it was time to go home. Our little “information literacy session” was over. I am not sure if Sam will continue to apply what we discussed that afternoon but I was very proud of my nephew for being curious and for asking questions.

If you, like Sam, are interested in ascertaining reliable sources or exploring questioning, come to our Researcher Unbound workshops. We offer a wide range of workshops to support you in your research and assignments. 

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