Provenance is not a region in France

I’ve always liked the word ‘provenance’. Not just the way it sounds, but what it means. Perhaps it’s the auditor in me. In my (old) dictionary it also has one of the shortest entries.

Provenance   n. (place of) origin.

In my dictionary it is the next word after ‘Prove’.

When I used to talk to students about information on the internet I used the word a lot. It is not always possible to judge the value of information just by looking at it. We need to understand its provenance, where it came from, it’s origin. We do this because it helps us to understand the purpose and validity of the information. It forms part of the lens through which we look at the material. If you want to do some of this work with your own students then the best resources for this are on novemberlearning.com (you may need to have a word with whoever controls your internet filter to access some of the sites in the examples, but it is worth it).

The other day I came a across a little exchange on twitter that pointed me in the direction of a document. There is the first element of the provenance of the information. I follow a range of people on Twitter. Don’t agree with everything that passes through my timeline but usually the information I come across via that route is interesting and sometimes challenging. Whilst I know personally few of the people I follow I have amassed a deal of respect for their approach to improvement education. Again, I don’t agree with everything that might be said by a long shot, but I can see that many sincerely do. And that’s a good starting point.

So I downloaded the document.

And that’s the point at which I started to wonder.

If you work through the resources mentioned above there will come a point at which you are confronted with a web address, stormfront.org, that in the context of a discussion of Martin Luther King makes you stop and think “something is not quite right here”. And indeed, it isn’t. Stormfront is, as you might perhaps think, a neo-nazi website (an argument from me for the value of cultural capital).

Back to the document. Why did it resonate in this way? It was downloading from a site with the URL heartland.org.

Okay, Mike, you’ve lost me. “Heartland”? So?

Well, indeed, ‘so’? To me it did not sound like an educational or indeed an academic site. Firstly, no “.ac”. This is important. “.ac” addresses are hard to get. So if I am looking for academic papers I would tend to look for “.ac” in the URL.  Then there is the word “Heartland”. In my (small) brain this started bells chiming in the “Heritage Foundation” part of my memory banks.

So, using my 21st Century skills I did a quick EasyWhoIs lookup of heartland.org and came to the Heartland Institute and then had a look at the website and find that its mission is to “discover, develop, and promote free market solutions to social and economic problems”.

Nothing too wrong with that, apart from assuming that the solutions to problems can always be found in the free market. It just doesn’t seem likely to me that if researched properly every education problem would just happen to have as its best outcome free-market solution.

What else do they do?

The three main ideas they seem to be proposing re education are Taxpayer Savings Grants (reimbursing costs to parents who enroll their children at private schools), School Vouchers, and the Parent Trigger (which allows a majority or parents to petition to have their local school reorganized or transformed into a charter, or even receive vouchers to choose private schools).

This is a US foundation and these should be viewed in that context, but that seems to me to come from a particular end of the education debate, rather than being from a view that is open to any idea. It does present itself as having a particular ideology.

Again, there is nothing wrong with that. I have a particular ideology myself. And the site hasn’t presented itself as anything other than what it is. It may however provide some guidance as to the provenance of the document in question. Is it an unbiased piece of evidence or is it partial?

So if it has a specific view on education, where can we place that view on a spectrum. Perhaps we can look at other sections of their website to see what other advocacy they do. Personally I stopped after delving into the section on the environment. Prominent on this page was a quote:

The Heartland Institute is “the worlds most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change

The Economist May 26 2012

A charge it seems to wear like a badge of pride.

Perhaps I’m misguided in judging things in this way. Perhaps it is going for the man rather than the ball. In my view, this institute is not starting from a viewpoint of what does the science tell us, but how can we use science to make people believe in what we want them to.

So that leaves me a bit skeptical about the contents of a document they store on their servers, before I’ve even read it. It also makes me a little less eager to link to items provided by people who know that such documents are stored on their servers. And I know that this is unfair as it was just stored on their servers and it may just happen to be the location they knew about. It could also be in hundreds of other places that wouldn’t have this effect on my judgement.

Of, course, all the above does not necessarily suggest that the contents of the document are wrong, or misleading. It just makes me less likely to want to give it the benefit of the doubt and read it on its own merits. Some may suggest that this is just confirmation bias, but I think it’s something slightly different.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that none of us (clearly speaking for everyone when I mean me) is perfect. We are affected by bias and sometimes it can be the smallest thing that activates that bias.

And that is why provenance is important.

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