The use of fake news to influence the election of 2016, reveals it isn’t just our young adults that lack the skills to detect and resist misinformation. Many of their parents and grandparents also lack the critical thinking and research skills necessary to place information in context and separate the wheat from the chaff. In many respects, the most troubling aspect of this problem isn’t our apparent gullibility but our ongoing refusal to do much if anything about it.
The focus on standardized testing is a symptom of an education system literally designed to teach students what to think rather than how to think. Memorization, not research skills and hands-on learning, became even more of a focus as successive governments drank the testing Kool-Aid. Time-consuming experiments or other projects were dropped to make room for lessons that drilled the right answers into students. Arts programs that fostered creativity and instilled an appreciation for culture were cut or eliminated altogether in the name of efficiency. Our schools became factories that mimicked the routinized schedules of the workplace while denying students the chance to ask questions, challenge the ideas being presented to them, and figure things out for themselves.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A recent episode of the BBC World Service podcast The Documentary highlighted work being done to determine the best approaches for instilling in children a basic grasp of what qualifies as evidence and the importance of understanding the basis of the claims they will inevitably hear from salesmen, politicians, and even family members over the course of their lives. The program, entitled You Can Handle The Truth, doesn’t just reveal how successful such efforts can be but how much delight children actually take in learning how to unmask poorly supported assertions and outright falsehoods.
The program’s host, the British statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter, traveled to Uganda to see the results of these efforts for himself. Researchers and educators in that country had been working with a Norwegian team on educational materials designed to teach elementary age students how to make more informed health choices.
The young Ugandan students were given a comic book that depicted individuals confronting a number of difficult choices. Among the most popular comic book characters is a parrot that, as parrots are known to do, repeats back everything it hears unquestioningly. Over the course of the school year, students discussed the various scenarios described within the book with their teachers and learned the importance of asking those making a claim what the basis for it was and how to better evaluate the answers they heard in response.
The Ugandan program involved 10,000 students from 120 schools. Sixty of the schools were placed in a control group. Students at these institutions received no additional instruction. In the remaining 60 schools, students participated in lessons and activities designed to provide them with basic critical thinking skills. At the end of the year, students from all 120 schools were tested and the differences between the control group and the test group assessed.
The results of that testing revealed the program had produced the desired effect and in a big way. All students were given 24 problems to solve or evaluate. Thirteen right answers were considered a passing grade. The 24 questions presented to students on the test were unique and had not been problems considered as part of the critical thinking curriculum.
In the control group, 27% of the students passed the test. In the intervention group, 69% received a passing score. Even teachers in the two groups were tested. Among the control group’s teachers, 87% passed, while the intervention group saw 98% of the teachers get a passing grade.
One of the problems the researchers anticipated but never encountered is one that will likely sound familiar to Americans; parents becoming upset as their children begin coming home from school with tough questions about cherished beliefs and cultural practices. Uganda is a country with a rich history of folk remedies and superstition. Researchers feared that having children go off to school in the morning happily accepting particular family or cultural traditions only to return in the evening wondering about the basis for the claims surrounding grandma’s famous herbal remedy could turn parents against their efforts.
However, Ugandan parents, at least so far, haven’t made a fuss. Their children are excited to be learning and take delight in being empowered to question their elders about things that have been taken for granted for generations. To everyone’s surprise, parents and other family members don’t seem to mind.
Sir David Spiegelhalter also took a trip to California for his BBC program. That state is currently considering legislation that will mandate media literacy education. Spiegelhalter paid a visit to one California classroom where students were asked to research various theories into who or what sank the Battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor on February 15, 1898. The sinking of the Maine ultimately led the United States into a war with Spain.
American parents aren’t likely to get too upset if their children conclude an American battleship that sank over 100 years ago went down due to an accident instead of a Spanish mine as was widely assumed at the time, but it’s hard to imagine many of them remaining silent when it comes to climate change, evolution, vaccines, or race relations. They haven’t so far. In just the past year Mark Twain and Harper Lee were targeted by the school board in Duluth, Minnesota because their books contained language that might make students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”
One of the appeals of the reading, writing, and arithmetic mantra is that learning these skills, at least in theory, doesn’t require teachers to raise too many questions or address contemporary controversies. Once a kid has the capacity to read, it’s just assumed they will figure it all out for themselves as an adult when and if they choose to. But learning to read is about more than just memorizing the alphabet and passing a spelling test. It’s about knowing how to think too.
The California media literacy bill failed on its first attempt in 2017, but it’s back again this year. If it passes, implementation will certainly be carefully watched to see what kind of impact it has on students being thrown into the sea of digital technologies we’ve created. Will they sink or swim? One thing is certain, however; it increasingly appears as though everything is riding upon their capacity to keep their heads above water.
In the August 27 issue of the New York Times, the author Thomas Chatterton Williams reviews two new books hitting the shelves: The Splintering of the American Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind. As the titles suggest, their authors rue the polarization, hypersensitivity, and inability to cope with controversies that now grips Americans right across the political spectrum.
But what got my attention wasn’t Williams assessment of these newly published works so much as the closing paragraph of his review. It was clearly more about us than it was either of the books he had just shared his thoughts on. Williams concludes:
What both of these books make clear from a variety of angles is that if we are going to beat back the regressive populism, mendacity and hyperpolarization in which we are currently mired, we are going to need an educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism. This liberalism will neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert. Yet as the tenuousness of even our most noble and seemingly durable civil rights gains grows more apparent by the news cycle, we must also reckon with the possibility that a full healing may forever lie on the horizon. And so we will need citizens who are able to find ways to move on despite this, without letting their discomfort traumatize or consume them. If the American university is not the space to cultivate this strong and supple liberalism, then we are in deep and lasting trouble.”
The anti-democratic forces that are currently so vocal in the United States would no doubt frame the kind of educational goals Williams identifies as some sort of conspiracy to destroy their movement and they would be right. They will claim that any attempt to instill in children critical thinking skills and an understanding of the nation’s history, laws, and aspirations are biased because these efforts fail to treat their own anti-intellectual, unscientific, and undemocratic points of view as worthy of equal of time. Again, they will be correct.
Freedom of speech means everyone gets to express themselves. However, it does not mean that every idea deserves equal press coverage or even any press coverage at all. Thinking is hard work precisely because it requires us to critically evaluate the concepts we’re exposed to. It determines not only what is and isn’t worthy of our time and attention but which ideas have the potential to either threaten or enrich our lives and those of our fellow citizens. There are sound methods for making these determinations that have proven themselves over and over again, but they can’t do us any good if we refuse to learn them.
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