We Need to Do More Work on Critical Thinking Skills

During the winter break, I spent some time reflecting on the craziness of these times. Although there was much to be proud of (the development of new technology skills/tools, the speedy creation of a COVID vaccine) there was one area of shadow that I couldn’t shake: the widespread support for the mis- and disinformation circulating online. As a social studies teacher I thought we had prepared upcoming generations for this kind of thing. Where did we go wrong?

The push for better preparing kids for this kind of future goes back to the mid 1980s. Back at the end of the 20th Century (BTW we are now closer to the year 2040 than we are to 2000!), there was a call to explore ways to better prepare the next generation for the challenges ahead in the new millennium. Organizations such as the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as well as leading academic institutions like MIT and Harvard, and a number of Fortune 500 companies, came together with the goal of preparing students for a future that would feature rapid change and increasingly complex technology. Among the skills that were being strongly encouraged was that of critical thinking – the unbiased analysis of something in order to make a judgement about it. 

The result was a profound transformation in curriculum design and classroom instructional practices. Regurgitating facts was no longer enough. Beginning in the late 90s and early 00s, students were challenged to actively think deeper and more creatively, to take more ownership of their learning, to collaborate together, and to communicate more effectively. Educators were challenged to collaborate more effectively with each other – within and across discipline boundaries, to provide learners with more voice and choice, make learning more visible, and create assessments that were more relevant and authentic.

And yet, after decades of an increased focus on critical thinking, questionable information still managed to have a larger-than-anticipated impact on the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, the 2016 UK Brexit referendum, the rollout of the COVID vaccines, and in the normally peaceful transfer of US Presidential power.  

One of the reasons why our efforts were not as effective as we hoped was a lack of foresight about how students would get their news in the future. Back in the 90s, information was distributed by respected and recognized media institutions. That is no longer the case. According to Statista.com, in 2020, almost half of all Americans got their news from social media sites. Unlike the news organizations of the past, social media news is not necessarily accurate. For instance, a 2020 McGill University study found that people who get their news from social media are more likely to develop misunderstandings about COVID-19. Researchers at the Canadian university found that there is “a big difference in the behaviours and attitudes of people who get their news from social media versus news media – even after taking into account demographics as well as factors like scientific literacy and socio-economic differences.” Those who prefer their news via social media, the study reports, “are less likely to observe social distancing and to perceive COVID-19 as a threat, while the opposite is true for people that get their information from news media.”

The bottom line is that we were guilty of preparing students for our future and not theirs. 

So, what do we – as educators – do about this? How do we make critical thinking more effective in any possible future?

First, we need to be honest with ourselves. Are we really challenging our students to think critically? Sure, our students can take a quote from an online source and put it into an essay to support an argument. But, that’s a mechanical skill. How do we know that the student really explored their perspectives – that they really challenged their ideas? Did they really put some ‘critical’ into their critical thinking?

One powerful tool is discussion. Sharing ideas out loud with teachers and peers forces students out of their safe MS Word/Google Docs spaces. Once you have to verbally share your ideas, they are open to questions and countering. Nancy Motley’s Talk Read Talk Write routine is an excellent tool for including discussion into daily instruction. TRTW increases student involvement in their learning and boosts student talk-time (and, therefore, student learning).  

We also need to shine a spotlight on student information-gathering practices. First, students need to look past the first page of results in their Google searches. If Google produces a billion matches to your search query, why would you only look at the first ten? Next, students should also be encouraged to look outside of Google altogether. According to Webpresencesolutions.net, the Google search algorithm produces different search results for different users based on a number of factors, including the previous searches on the device, previously clicked links, your location, the Google account signed into, the device being used, the type of search and filters used, and the type of paid ads present. So, students might not find the information they need, or they might find themselves channelled into a particular bubble/silo of information and opinions. 

We can also show students how to strengthen their arguments by learning how to attack them from multiple perspectives. The C3 Framework, for instance, offers students an opportunity to develop curiosity and divergent thinking by challenging students to examine social studies ideas, events, and actions through four disciplines: history, geography, economics, and civics. 

All of these strategies need to be intentionally broken down, explained, modelled, and then practiced. We need students to understand the process, and to not focus on an outcome. The graphic organizers we provide should feature more than simply blanks for listing their thesis statement, supporting details, etc. And, the scores we provide should not be attached to their finished essay, but instead on the steps they followed. If we provide grades only for the final product, that’s ultimately where student effort will focus. We need to broaden their gaze and shine a light on thinking and not just in presentation.

Modelling, in particular, needs to become a more important tool in our classrooms. We need to model not only the argument development process, we need to model the argument evaluation process. We need to regularly show students how we break down and analyze ideas.   In the Edutopia article How Teachers Can Use Their Own Writing as Model Texts education professor Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman outlines the modelling process she uses with her students. She builds in opportunities for students to ask questions while she is writing. And, Dr. Bowman allows students to witness the frustrations that she feels while she is writing. Bowman explains that she doesn’t get defensive about her mistakes, she wants her students to see that messing up is a natural part of the process, but that there are constructive ways to respond to frustration, as well as concrete steps that can be taken to overcome problems. The article also recommends building in a reflection stage in every writing activity. This is another way to ensure that the process is the star of the activity, not merely the final product. 

Once students have the critical thinking process in mind, they will no longer look at news articles the same way. They will not simply absorb the overall end message. Their understanding of the processes behind the writing will help them notice the structure behind the arguments they encounter and – if those arguments are flimsy, ignorant of other perspectives, or unconnected to facts – students will kick them to the curb where they belong.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2021 – and beyond.

Ed X!

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