Digital Literacy Does Not Mean Critical Thinking

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

Recently, in “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds” (23 Nov. 2016), NPR reported that Stanford University researchers were shocked to learn that students are unable to distinguish real news from fake, ads from articles. The researchers collected and analyzed data from 7,800 middle school, high school and university students. The participants were from 12 states and were asked to evaluate information from various online sources such as tweets and articles.

The researchers’ “surprising” findings highlight that many people assume that young people are technology savvy because they can use their mobile devices and social media with seeming ease. However, their inability to use technology effectively is reflected in the results of this study. The students generally accept what is presented to them without questioning the validity or the bias. They accept it at face value.

I would hazard a guess that if the same study were done with any group of Internet users, the results would be equally as shocking. Rather than assuming that students or any users of technology and social media understand and are analyzing what they are seeing, our concern should be the quality of their digital literacy, their ability to read critically and not just accept everything without question.

The researchers propose that students and all other Internet users should be trained to read like fact checkers. They need to learn to not just read what is on the page but understand what it connects to. However, educators who work with and study technology use suggest that this is not enough.

Nik Peachey

Nik Peachey

Nik Peachey, for example, in his recent book, Thinking Critically Through Digital Media (2016), talks about how students are generally taught how to work with information through passive engagement. He suggests developing digital literacies, including understanding and analyzing what they are seeing.  They need to “assess the validity, credibility and underlying bias of the information they study” and be “given a range of research tools and techniques for reassessing the information and evaluating how it fits within their personal framework of belief systems and values.”

The International Literacy Association also addresses this issue in “Knowing the Difference Between Digital Skills and Digital Literacies, and Teaching Both” (3 Feb. 2016). The author, Maha Bali, points out that teaching digital skills needs to be embedded in authentic contexts so that learners are also becoming digitally literate. She states that “digital literacy is not about the skills of using technologies, but how we use our judgment to maintain awareness of what we are reading and writing, why we are doing it, and whom we are addressing.”

8 Responses

  1. I would have thought that this conclusion was a given. How can expertise in manipulating a device indicate good thinking skills? These two things operate in separate universes.

    Many such ideas abound, where what people may think (e.g., digital literacy = critical thinking ability) not only fails the truth test but also suggests that those thinking this way flunk the critical thinking exercise badly.

    Now, consider a corollary. Many argue that learning to code will improve thinking skills, especially critical thinking skills. At least, we can find some overlap between the two, but not enough to justify that conclusion.

    Critical thinking will not come readily to anyone. It requires ignoring our “gut” feelings in favor of greater intellectual effort. It also requires that you develop a skeptical mindset, one that your friends might not appreciate.

    Few classes or curricula teach critical thinking. Many people don’t even know what that is. For a rather thorough treatment of this topic, I recommend Carl Sagan’s book, “The Demon-Haunted World.” One chapter deal with “the fine art of baloney detection.” It’s worth a read.

    • In my mind, “critical thinking” is a moving target. It’s not an either/or proposition, and it varies wildly in space and time. In a word, it’s relative. Demonstrating it in one set of problems doesn’t guarantee a repeat in another. Each set is unique, and the construct that each person brings to it is unique. What this means is that the best critical thinker in situation A could be the worst in situation B.

      Skepticism is a tool, not a philosophy. It has to be balanced with fluidity (openness, imagination) and flexibility (willingness to suspend disbelief or judgment) for the purpose of collaborative exploration. Also, a skeptical mindset “that your friends might not appreciate” is counter productive. It can very quickly become a discussion stopper. There’s a time and place for everything, including skepticism, and knowing when to turn it on or off is also a critical thinking skill.

      • While your ability to think critically about something may be anchored in your knowledge of the material, the basics of critical thinking remain constant. Again, see “The Demon-Haunted World,” or just browse for “baloney detection kit.” I agree that it’s not binary. Critical thinking is not either on or off. It’s continuous in nature and can be continually improved.

        An innate skepticism helps in thinking critically. I was trying to convey that you should not take this attitude too far, not apply it to trivia around friends. Leave your critical thinking tools sheathed until you encounter a situation requiring them. It’s your skepticism that rings an internal bell and wakes your critical thinking toolkit.

        When someone is asking for your money, your time, or your vote, you should trot out those tools right away. Chances are that you will be fooled on occasion but much less often than others who do not use those tools.

        I recall back in 2003 when the case for the war in Iraq was being promoted strongly with the often-unwitting connivance of the media. Cutting through the fog was not easy. Plenty of congress members were fooled, some because they wanted to be and others who were simply duped. We were told the war would be short and almost painless. We were told that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was building nuclear weapons. We were told that he was effectively the devil incarnate. Most of these things were lies and could be penetrated if you cared to think more deeply about them. Where was critical thinking then?

        In a more mundane example, the media went nuts over the “balloon boy” in Colorado for a day. The most trivial math and considerations about survival demonstrated clearly that this whole thing was a hoax. See http://smartscience.blogspot.com/2009/10/balloon-boy-hoax.html. Yet, no one did the analysis. The media loved the story and ended up with egg on its face but it did make them money.

        With Congress and major media being subject to errors due to a lack of critical thinking, it’s hard to fault students. I can, however, fault their learning institutions.

        Back to the issue of critical thinking and the topic, a majority of our population probably would not have the basic physics knowledge to make these connections for the balloon boy incident, but every media outlet should have a science correspondent who can — or who can quickly find someone who does — make the appropriate calculations.

        It’s easy. You only have to ask whether that balloon could carry the weight of a six-year-old boy. Seems unlikely. Might be possible. Has something to do with buoyancy. Look up buoyancy. If necessary, get some help. Your thinking can end up with a “maybe” or, with help, an answer. Either the balloon cannot leave the ground or will end up with baked boy inside.

        With the Internet close at hand today, you can resolve many such thinking challenges. However, you must have some ability to sift the wheat from the chaff as you harvest the web.

        • I fully agree, Harry. Your examples remind me of the information mess after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, 30 ago. The French government official line, taken up by most French media, was that radioactive fall-out neatly stopped at France’s borders. Italian media merrily confused REM and RAD and often got figures wrong by 3 zeros, until Giovanni Maria Pace, the science editor of La Repubblica, wrote a clear explanation of what the various measurements were.

          So today, how are we to asses hopes for the new steel shield over Chernobyl’s reactor 4 and its crumbling 30-year old sarcophagus that media seem so enthusiastic about? I’m at the vague basic skepticism stage now, but I know there is and all the links in its notes to start from, but I do hope that some serious science journalist like Pace will get their teeth into that.

  2. […] Nik Peachey, for example, in his recent book, Thinking Critically Through Digital Media (2016), talks about how students are generally taught how to work with information through passive engagement. He suggests developing digital literacies, including understanding and analyzing what they are seeing. They need to “assess the validity, credibility and underlying bias of the information they study” and be “given a range of research tools and techniques for reassessing the information and evaluating how it fits within their personal framework of belief systems and values.”  […]

  3. […] "By Lynn Zimmerman Associate Editor Editor, Teacher Education Recently, in “Students Have 'Dismaying' Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds" (23 Nov …"  […]

  4. […] By Lynn Zimmerman Associate Editor Editor, Teacher Education Recently, in “Students Have 'Dismaying' Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds" (23 Nov.  […]

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