A new report from Ofcom, the communications regulator in the UK has shown that an increasing number of children unquestioningly believe what they read on the internet, assuming that information returned by search engines must be true. Possibly most worrying of all, nearly a third of the teenagers who were questioned were unable to identify paid-for advertisements in search results. Some children seem to be looking for ‘true and accurate’ information about what’s going on in the world on Youtube, but only half of those surveyed were aware that Youtube is mainly funded by advertising.
Educators of all stripes will be concerned by such developments. It should give us reason to hesitate before accepting the idea of students teaching themselves and each other by looking things up on the internet, an idea that is currently being popularised by Sugata Mitra amongst others.
The traditional response to such a survey is to call for better teaching of ‘critical thinking skills’. The hypothesis is that we should teach children to ask questions such as ‘who has written this?’ and ‘why have they written this?’
Unfortunately, many attempts over the years to teach discrete critical thinking skills have failed. Cognitive Psychologist Dan Willingham explains why in this important article for American Educator:
“After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.”
So what is the solution? Well, for a start, I would be cautious about letting students loose on choosing their own sources of information. As teachers, we have a responsibility to marshal resources that are generally trustworthy when the object is not explicitly to examine the nature of the source.
Willingham would also argue that background knowledge is important for thinking critically. For instance, consider the following film from the 1950s.
You do not need to ask lots of questions in order to work out what is wrong here. In fact, asking ‘who has made this film?’ would be misleading because the provenance of the source is actually quite a good one; the BBC current affairs programme, ‘Panorama’. It just happened to be broadcast on the 1st of April. The reason that so many people were fooled by this spoof was that spaghetti was not widely eaten in Great Britain in 1957; it was somewhat exotic and British people didn’t know a great deal about it. These days, when many people may have even made their own pasta, I suspect fewer folks would be duped.
Our ability to think critically largely depends upon our ability to compare new information with something that we already know (see discussion here). If we trust what we already know or have multiple representations of that knowledge then we will be sceptical of conflicting information – this is actually a key problem in science education.
And this is why simply educating people seems to improve their critical thinking skills, without resort to specific critical thinking skills training.
I suggest we ask our students to close their laptops from time-to-time and, instead, teach them some worthwhile knowledge.