Nurturing Critical Thinkers in a Post-Truth World

Access and Inclusion May 15, 2017

Social change is a nebulous and frightening topic. What is it exactly? Who is in charge of deciding the objectives for change? How is social change measured? Does society need to change? What role do educators play in determining what exact change should and will take place in our classrooms and in the world? None of these questions have universal answers. However, in these times of political uncertainty and educational disruption, it is important to consider how we educators can help our students navigate their own development while understanding that the mindsets our students learn in schools are as important as the content we teach.

According to Uncle Google, social change refers to any significant alteration over time in behavior patterns and cultural values and norms. By “significant” alteration, sociologists mean changes yielding profound social consequences. For educators, it is important to consider the source(s) of those changes and what role we can play in influencing that behavior for the good of society. Two of the most important things we can do are a) teach students how to evaluate critically the information they receive and b) model for them that we form our own beliefs and opinions based on facts rather than ideology.

Finding and Evaluating Information

In an era when the Oxford Dictionary names “post-truth” as their word of the year, it is important to ask, what is truth? What are facts? How do those facts impact our actions in society? I often talk with large groups of educators about the value and impact of teaching evaluation skills. Our students have traditionally had 1-2 sources of information readily available in schools including the teacher and a textbook. Now our students have thousands of sources available on their mobile devices. It is important that we take the lead in helping students understand which information is pertinent, how to appraise that information, and appropriate ways to use the information after it has been verified.

To make an impact, it is important that we start with the basics about how to differentiate between opinions and facts.  There has been considerable media attention recently on Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds and explaining why This Article Won’t Change Your Mind. If opinions are, indeed, not changed by facts, our role as educators is to teach students how to form opinions carefully, thoughtfully, and based on reality- before they become unchangeable worldviews. There are multiple ways to have these conversations in class but it may be easiest to start with the following three strategies.

1-  Teach Your Students to Fact Check

This recent article by Scott Bedley, “I taught my 5th-graders how to spot fake news. Now they won’t stop fact-checking me” is a great example of how even our youngest learners can become more critical learners. Mr. Bedley actively encourages his students to fact check everything- including their teachers. They have to do this by verifying multiple sources, checking for copyrights, looking for dates published, etc. Mr. Bedley has a system in place and his students are expected to think critically about the information they are provided.

2-  Introduce Research Terminology- and use it!

It is our job to teach students research concepts such as fidelity, reliability, validity, and primary sources. These ideas should be introduced to students as part of their normal lexicon and should be as common to classroom conversations as terms such as addition and subtraction in mathematics, hypothesis in science, or the climax of the story in English. Did the research measure what was intended? Are the solutions presented reliable across different settings? How do we know there were not other factors that actually led to the result? These concepts should be familiar to students and discussed frequently in class.

3-  Introduce Investigative Journalism

Schools should sponsor “Detective Clubs” and “Investigative Journalism” classes.  While classes are often focused on providing solutions, schools should actively promote extracurricular activities that encourage asking questions. In this secondary example, one school’s group of student journalists found enough false information provided by their recently hired principal during the interview process that she resigned. Activities like these provide students an opportunity to ask questions- and encourage them to find the answers.

Be What You Want to See

Beyond simply introducing searching and evaluating as a curricular objectives, we also need to set an example ourselves- by welcoming debates about important topics, celebrating primary source data, and being intellectually flexible based on information presented. As educators, we need to model evaluation, engage in critical thinking and debate, and show how facts inform our own opinions through the example we set everyday. This is especially important when we think about social change. In an era of fake news, alternative facts, and media shaming, how we navigate our own lives and interactions with society is more important than ever for our students to practice and observe.

Social change in education begins with helping students to understand information and providing a good example for them to follow. As educators, our roles are to act as mentors, coaches, parents, caregivers, and role models. These roles begin before we teach content and are, quite frankly, far more important than any content we deliver. It may be too grand to consider a “curriculum” on social change. It may be too overwhelming to think of changing all of society. It may be impossible to determine what social change should look like in today’s world. But it is not impossible to start with lessons about evaluating information and then modeling for our students that we, too, are constantly searching for the right information and using it to inform our own opinions.