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Future-Ready Skills: Teaching Critical Thinking In the Era of Fake News

This year, Ozobot is tackling future-ready skills. These are the skills that will always be in demand, no matter how much technology changes our society. In past articles, we have looked at creativity and teamwork as skills that students will need no matter where their careers take them. Here, we discuss critical thinking.

Critical thinking is one of the most in-demand skills on job applications. It is routinely listed as a valuable skill for positions ranging from entry-level cashiers to senior executives. It’s easy to teach someone to use a computer; it’s much harder to teach critical thinking.

Critical thinking is an essential future-ready skill outside of the workforce, too. It is crucial to consuming news intelligently, using the internet effectively, and engaging as a member of the community. It is also a challenging skill teachers are hoping to grow in the era of fake news. Let’s explore critical thinking through the lens of media consumption to learn why today’s students will use this skill tomorrow and in decades to come, in all areas of their lives.

Students Struggle to Identify Accurate and Reliable Information

Both parents and teachers are concerned about the amount of media kids consume, as well as accuracy. Several researchers are trying to gauge student media consumption to determine whether or not younger generations can spot ads and fake news.

One Stanford study assessed students of various ages, asking them to review content they read online. They were to discern the differences between an official Fox News account and one trying to look like it. They were also asked about the ethics of a bank sponsoring a post on financial advice. Across several tests, a large portion of the students couldn’t tell where real content ended and where advertisements or fake accounts started.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” writes the study’s author Professor Sam Wineburg. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

It’s not that fake news is a new concept. Gossip and rumors have changed the course of history long before the invention of the printing press. Many governments in the 20th century and earlier relied on fake news, propaganda, and control of the media to spread lies that benefited their regimes. The difference students face today is the sheer amount of news coming and the rate that it spreads.

“The real problem is that we haven’t developed the skills to absorb, assess, and sort the unprecedented amounts of information coming from new technologies,” writes education reporter Annabelle Timsit. “We are letting our digital platforms, from our phones to our computers and social media, rule us.”

With the sheer amount of fake (or highly biased) news spreading around the web, some people have called on private companies like Facebook and Twitter to identify and remove fake news stories. Others have called on the government to intervene. However, asking companies and governing bodies to sort information can quickly turn into censorship — especially if there is content those entities don’t like.

For example, Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, was interviewed by NPR on Russia’s recent crackdown on “fake news” which also included insults to state symbols or authorities. He calls the new laws in Russia “politically significant”, explaining that the internet had “remained a relatively free space for political expression, including oppositional to the regime, even as the state media, and all other forms of media, be it print, or television, or radio, were largely shut down by the state, over the last 20 years.”

If the internet is going to remain a place for free expression and debate, then it’s up to users (especially the rising generations) to identify and stop fake news in its tracks.

How Teachers Are Fighting Against Fake News

If students need to be the ones stopping the spread of fake news, then teachers must be able to teach fact-checking and critical thinking as top skills. Some instructors are ahead of the game, working on activities and fun tests to teach kids how to bust fake news.

Scott Bedley, a veteran elementary school teacher, is one such instructor. He reads stories to his students, giving them three minutes to research and vote (by standing or sitting) whether those stories are true. He expanded the game to “two truths and a lie” style options where students have to pick out the fake news out of three stories.

These games have turned his students into a class of fact-checkers who question everything. Bedly says he even slips fake news stories into his other lessons for the fun of seeing which students will call him out. It makes the lessons more engaging and keeps student critical thinking skills sharp.

Elementary school teachers Lindsey Sachs and Shannon Craige took another approach. They developed a four-month course to help students navigate the internet in the modern era. Students learn to think critically, identify advertisements, and how to research seemingly accurate pieces of information for falsehoods. “News has shifted so much,” says Sachs. “Everyone can be a reporter now. It’s about them realizing you can’t take everything at face value.”

One source that both Sachs and Craige use is Checkology, part of The News Literacy Project. The platform is used by more than 6,300 public and private school teachers across the U.S. and in 52 countries, reaching more than 947,000 students. It helps students learn how to identify misinformation, critique judgements and opinions, interpret the First Amendment, and identify confirmation bias. It shows students how to think critically once they leave the classroom.

Facts Versus Opinions

Fact checking isn’t the only challenge students face. Teachers are also spending time illustrating the difference between facts and opinions. The concept of fact versus opinion has been taught in classrooms for decades; however, some students are having a harder time coming to terms with various facts.

A recent Pew Research Center study looked at how people perceive facts and opinions. Senior researcher Michael Barthel reports that people are more likely to identify correct facts when those facts agree with their views. Next, people are more likely to call something an opinion, rather than a fact, if they disagree with it. “If it wasn’t an opinion statement — it was a factual statement that they misclassified — they generally disagreed with it,” Barthel says.

This is where many teachers hit a wall.

Teaching students about facts and opinions gets harder when their pupils already have polarizing political views — something younger and younger kids are developing. In a study of 2,000 US children and teens by KidsHealth.org, 75 percent thought their lives would be directly affected by the presidential election. Half of teens thought they had at least some influence on their parents’ choice of candidate. Children today are interested in events shaping the world around them. They are paying attention to the news and forming their opinions and beliefs from the media they consume.

Parents Don’t Know How to Talk to Their Kids About Politics

Today’s kids form their political opinions from a variety of sources. They pick up ideas from their peers, read about issues online, and often mimic their parents’ views. Groups like KidsHealth.org and other community publications are working to prepare parents for their newly-political children.

The Children’s Hospital of Colorado created a guide for talking about politics with kids. For example, they say that it’s okay to have an argument in front of a child as long as they see the resolution. For politics, in particular, this is actually an opportunity to show how to have a healthy disagreement and how to use facts to bolster opinion-based arguments.

Teachers Aren’t Sure How Much They Should Influence Their Pupils

If parents have a hard time discussing politics with kids, then teachers have a much harder time approaching sensitive topics. Many people don’t think teachers should share their views with students in the classroom, especially if the teacher’s views counter what the parents teach their kids at home.

High school teacher David Cutler says he remained neutral for years so he wouldn’t influence students with his personal opinions. He cites one mentor who told him “one teacher’s sense of ‘social justice’ is another teacher’s sense of ‘irresponsible judicial activism.’” When Cutler did discuss politics, he did so in a way that encouraged students to question belief systems and check sources of information.

Fortunately, many students realize their teachers have to walk a tightrope when discussing sensitive political topics. In fact, Newton South High School students discussed the ethics of teachers sharing their opinions. “If a teacher strongly shares their opinion, students with opposing opinions may feel like they cannot share their point of view,” one sophomore said. “Although teachers should be allowed to share their political views, they should still make sure that their classroom is a safe space for all opinions.”

If teachers can’t bring politics or current events into the classroom at all, they will have a hard time discussing fake news, fact-checking, and other essential critical thinking skills.

Critical Thinking Helps in an Increasingly Polarized Landscape

Throughout all of the debates about whether teachers should share their political opinions or not, one thread remains constant: Educators want students to use accurate information and critical thinking when forming opinions. And not just in school, but in life.

“Students need to engage in critical thinking so often it becomes a habit,” Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It,” writes. “That means schools need to do more than implement a one-semester program or an online game…critical thinking needs to be woven through every aspect of the curriculum, beginning in the early grades.”

Critical thinking is comprised of four key skill sets: logical thinking, research, self-awareness and creativity, explains blogger Sally White. Without one of these skills, students will have a hard time following logical patterns or researching beliefs to see if they are in fact true. While teachers might not be able to teach critical thinking directly, they can develop lessons with research and logical thinking in mind.  

Additionally, to encourage critical thinking in students, child development writer Kelly Bartlett says parents and teachers should take a step back and let kids think and explore for themselves. They need to solve problems or attempt to solve them. And when educators need to step in, she discourages lectures or long explanations. Rather, by letting kids understand where they got stuck, they can better apply those problem-solving processes in the future.

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