Critical Thinking Skills for the Digital Age

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

Until about five thousand years ago mankind was limited to communication skills in the form of the spoken word and cave drawings. With the invention of writing the word could be transported over time and space. Consequently, knowledge and events developed in one part of the world could be shared around the world and passed from one generation to the next.

Collage: on the left, a 1568 engraving of a printing press by J. Amman, , showing a pair of printers in the foreground and two compositors at their cases in the background. Then an arrow pointing to a Facebook page saying: "Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life", with picture of connected avatars.The written word was a much more stable record than the spoken word. It could be stored in libraries and retrieved from one generation to the next. However, until the invention of the printing press about 500 years ago, the written word was available only to scholars and scribes. Most people had to rely upon the gatekeepers of knowledge to interpret the record for them. Priests, scholars and scribes were the interpreters of this storehouse of knowledge in the libraries of mankind.

History was often acted out in plays, sung in ballads, reenacted in dances or related by travelling storytellers. Only in the nineteenth century did universal literacy become a skill required of an educated citizen. By the twentieth century, literacy was required for almost all jobs in society. In the twenty-first century, most jobs require knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

To become literate one has to learn to encode speech or phonemes in letters and combine them into words. To read one must learn to decode the letters into meaningful words. Eventually the reader must be able to comprehend the meaning of the words. The reader must learn to vet the accuracy of the words and their comprehensive meaning. In a print world, editors vetted the accuracy of the written words. Peer experts reviewed research, and you had a reasonable assurance that you were reading facts and not propaganda. Today in the digital world of information, it can be entered on the Internet so fast that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction or propaganda. Today information travels around the world at the speed of light.

In a simpler age, we taught children critical reading skills that enabled them to understand primary and secondary sources of information. There were guideposts that assisted them in accepting facts and separating them from propaganda. Publishers, editors, and peer review systems verified the printed word. In the 1980s, we developed critical television viewing skills for young children. How could they discriminate between fantasy cartoons and real life science?  For young adults, how can they verify articles on cold fusion from fraudulent research? Why did a senator have a hair transplant?

In the digital age, our challenge is tremendous because from all parts of the world anyone can enter data on the Internet, Facebook, Twitter or other sources. Both accurate and false information goes around the world at the speed of light. The challenge is how to give young people the critical thinking skills that allow them to make maximum use of this cornucopia of information and at the same time verify its accuracy.

As teachers, our job is to develop systems that enable students to use this massive amount of information wisely.

7 Responses

  1. I wish I were as optimistic as Frank that a “system” would enable our students to use the internet wisely and to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference myself, except when I consult my years of life experience and ask, does this really work? That’s not something I can “give” my students, is it?

    I do think that our job as teachers is to teach students to think critically. Crtiical thinking is an old fashioned skill and it has been around a while and it has been taught a while. It’s not easy to learn and even harder to teach. It is best taught, I think, by being modeled. And that means that we who would teach need to continually learn. I agree totally with Frank that the old “guideposts” that separated fact from fantasy are pretty useless today. I don’t insist that students use articles from a “juried” or peer-reviewed journal today. I do require them to know the provenance of any website they use in research and tell them that the credentials of the writers need to be transparent. We don’t live in a world where degrees are always relevant or tell us much at all about whether or not to “trust” information, so they have to learn to evaluate a credential.

    Let me add that it frequently feels like pushing the proverbial stone up the hill. I get that feeling especially when I’m teaching a course that requires research about political issues where fantasy has become the currency, not facts.

  2. Frank and Judith,

    I don’t agree that the old “guideposts” that separated fact from fantasy are pretty useless today. Or maybe it depends on how you understand “guidepost”. Yet even if you mean trusting the meta- and front-matter stuff, then you also have it in online texts. Besides, it was not all that reliable in the pre-digital world either: see the alleged publisher’s preface in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is actually part of the joke played by the author with/on the readers.

    But since the old Roman rhetoricians at least, the main guideposts for assessing media have been the capacity to ask the criminal inquiry questions (“Who, what, where, with what means, why, how, when?” later simplified into Wh- questions), with “Why?” meaning “What is the author trying to achieve by publishing that?” The replies – or the impossibility to find a reply – give a clue about the un/reliability of the object.

    This still obtains for digital media. Actually, finding replies has become easier.

    Take the “print shop v. facebook” picture in this post: with the search engines we have now, it takes less than a minute to find that the engraving on the left comes from the 1568 Der Buchdrücker page of Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auff Erden, hoher und nidriger, geistlicher und weltlicher, aller Künsten, Handwercken und Händeln (Real description of all jobs on earth, high and low, spiritual and mundane, of all arts, handicrafts and businesses) by Hans Sachs, with wood engravings by Jost Amman.

    You could not have done that as easily on a printed equivalent in predigital times: I know for having spent days at the Sormani library in Milan looking up pictures by German expressionists, going nuts because I’m visually illiterate – and because they had a 12 volumes per day limit, back then, and I was coming all the way from Lugano.

    So nowadays, a media literacy exercise could go:

    1) Apply the criminal inquiry questions to the picture illustrating Frank B. Withrow’s Critical Thinking Skills for the Digital Age, in order to add an alt attribute to it.
    2) Re the Why question, does Frank B. Withrow’s own intention in using that particular engraving really matter for your purpose, i.e. giving blind people an equivalent of the visual information conveyed by the engraving?
    3) Re the What question, should your alt attribute convey contextual information about the engraving, or just a description of it?

    Again, the equivalent question in a pre-digital era would have been an extremely tall order.

    • Good examples, Claude, thanks for that. I do think that modeling is our best way to teach these skills!

      For me, always, the challenge is finding the right questions to ask. I like your simple formulation (the criminal inquiry questions) AND I do think we need to also be more sophisticated about our inquiries.

      • Thanks, Judith. The “criminal inquiry” questions as such are just a framework, then you have to (teach students to) adapt them to the object at hand. One thing I often did in my predigital teaching was cutting off (with scissors) all the intertitles in an article, then ask students to formulate questions that would produce their own intertitles.

  3. I think it eventually will be easier to vet things in the digital world, bu we have to train people to habitually ask critical questions. In the print world we went through a period of yellow journalism until we learned better. Even today in the digital world we media bias that is known. Users must learn to evaluate and use such information. What I have trouble with is those who ignore scientific facts. Global warming is to me a point that is scientifically valid. We must learn to question better the information we obtain.

  4. We must learn to ask better questions and remember the old fable of the five blind men that examined an elephant. The one that examined the trunk was convinced the elephant was a pipe. The one that examined the ears thought it was a fan. The one that examined the tusks thought it was a spear. The one that examined the elephant’s side thought it was a wall and the one that examined the tail thought it was a rope. We need to teach our students to ask a full range of questions. There are those who believe the Earth is only about 12000 years old. Science tells us different things. How can we vet these different ideas?

  5. […] By Frank B. Withrow Until about five thousand years ago mankind was limited to communication skills in the form of the spoken word and cave drawings. With the invention of writing the word could be…  […]

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