As the 20th century drew to a close, educators and policymakers sought out strategies to prepare students for success in the 21st century. One of the areas targeted for more attention was critical thinking skills – the ability to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information in a thoughtful and systematic way. So, many schools and education systems developed frameworks and curricula aimed at helping students think more independently and creatively.
And we all lived happily ever after….not!
Between then and now, something unexpected occurred.
Social media happened.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, in 2005, only 5% of American adults reported using social media platforms. As of January 2022, there were 4.90 billion active social media users worldwide, representing over 63% of the world’s population.
The explosion of self-generated content meant that people were really putting themselves out there for the world to see, sharing their photos, videos, opinions, and experiences. It was amazing.
Then the trolls appeared.
Social media platforms became contaminated by individuals intentionally disrupting and/or offending others in order to provoke anger and create conflict.
Another problem for content generators was the fundamental design of social media. Platforms are designed to encourage users to seek social validation through the acquisition of prominently displayed “likes” and followers. This has created a sense of competition and encourages users to seek out more likes in order to boost their social standing.
Trolls were no longer a mere annoyance. They were a threat to one’s social standing and self-esteem. The social media environment then became a battleground.
The critical thinking skills that educators distributed in an effort to prepare their students for academic and professional success were weaponized to instead ensure one’s social media success.
In other words, critical thinking skills morphed into criticism-thinking skills.
Yes, the creation of engaging and interesting original content was still valuable. But, it became just as important to be able to dispense, when necessary, devastating clap-backs, roasts, sick burns, and mic drops.
So, how do we change this narrative? How do we teach our students that there is more to exchanging ideas than scoring points, that communication can be a win-win?
Some ways to achieve these goals include:
- Modeling positive communication: we can show our students what positive communication looks like by ensuring that we always listen and use positive language when interacting with students.
- Encouraging collaboration: we can provide students with safe ways to practice positive communication skills by providing more opportunities for students to work together.
- Creating a safe and inclusive classroom environment: ensure all students feel safe and included in the classroom environment by promoting diversity, addressing instances of bullying or exclusion, and providing support and resources for students who may be struggling.
In addition, as a social studies teacher, I have attempted to encourage this change in mindset by moving away from the individual achievement narrative of history and towards the concept of success through cooperation.
Critical thinking skills are undeniably essential for success. But, we can’t forget to show students how to employ these skills in positive and collaborative ways. Social media’s focus on individual achievement and competition has resulted in too much toxicity. By fostering a culture of respect, inclusivity, and collaboration in our classrooms and our schools, we can help students learn that there is more to life than likes. Instead, let’s teach them to work in diverse groups and teams towards common goals so they can become the kind of influencers that this world actually needs.