August 21, 2014

Teaching Critical Thinking in Age of Digital Credulity

Category: Digital Citizenship
laptop computer desk with mental warm-up on screen

By the end of 2014, more than 3 billion people will have access to the Internet, which means that they (we) have the power to ask any question at any time and get a multitude of answers within a second. The responsibility for distinguishing between accurate, credible, true information and misinformation or disinformation, however, is no longer vested in trained and vetted experts — editors, publishers, critics, librarians, professors, subject-matter specialists.

Now, the enormity, ubiquity and dubious credibility of the information available to most of the world’s population is requiring each of us to become something of an expert on figuring out when we’re being misled or lied to. Perhaps, unfortunately, for the future of life online, few teachers or parents impart to young people the always useful but now essential skills of how to question, investigate, analyze and judge that link they just got in email or the factual claim they just found through a search engine.

I’ve been writing about digital media for nearly 30 years, and over that time, I’ve been asked over and over again by readers, critics, scholars and myself: “Do these personal computers, digital networks, webs of unfiltered information, mobile attention magnets do us more good than harm — as individuals, families, communities, and societies?” I have come to believe that the answer is: “It depends on how many people know how to use these technologies to their own benefit and that of the commons.”

In the course of writing “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online,” my guide to social media literacies, I concluded that the first literacy I would teach a person entering the world of social media is that of attention — the fundamental particle of thought and communication — and the second essential fluency is what Neil Postman and Ernest Hemingway called “crap detection.”

I devoted a chapter of “Net Smart” to crap detection, I teach it to my Stanford students, I made a publicly editable syllabus available to college and high school teachers. I organized a wiki about critical thinking during a workshop by educators. When students in my social media literacies class had to do makeup work, I asked them to create a document with useful, credible resources for crap detection. These students got off to such a great start that I asked people via social media to contribute to it, and it’s still a growing compendium of crap detection tools. Anybody can suggest a resource by commenting on the document.

Which is to say that as soon as I learned that Peter Taylor was teaching a master’s program on critical and creative thinking, I sought him out. The course description makes it clear that critical thinking is transformational — the person who learns critical thinking skills is a different person from who he or she was before: “The rationale for a master’s program of study in CCT is that an explicit and sustained focus on learning and applying ideas and tools in critical thinking, creative thinking, and reflective practice allows students involved in a wide array of professions and endeavors to develop clarity and confidence to make deep changes in their learning, teaching, work, activism, research and artistry.”

Taylor models what he teaches on his blog, his tweets, the course wiki and podcasts. When we talked recently, he started out by saying: “The big challenge of the program is to get students to take themselves seriously — not to perform according to some standards of mastery of content, but to identify projects that are really important to them to advance in the program and to continue afterward.” Taylor’s students learn to use social media and other tools to reflect on their learning as they are doing it.

In a blog post, Taylor focused on a definition of reflection by M.W. Daudelin as “Reflection is the process of stepping back from an experience to ponder, carefully and persistently, its meaning to the self through the development of inferences; learning is the creation of meaning from past or current events that serves as a guide for future behaviour.” In other words, reflection enables learners to get beyond just acquiring knowledge and provokes them to dive into ways of changing themselves through what and how they learn.

Watch this 14-minute video to see someone who, among other goals, aims to “get people in the middle of their careers to move themselves in new directions.”

Banner image credit: Queen’s University