Monday, May 19, 2014

Critical Thinking as a High School Requirement

My husband and I were having a conversation a little bit ago. I was telling him how, when I was in my teens/early twenties and had found a new obsession, I’d often talk about it in cafes. During this time, I would no doubt say all the silly things that newbies said. Someone would interject and correct me, and I’d invariably get embarrassed enough to find a book on the subject, then another, then another, then another. 

I remarked how Tumblr (and message boards, FB groups and so forth) are a lot like the newbie babbling in a cafe. It’s a way for someone to enthusiastically converse and talk about it. You may even find blogs or groups being run by people that have little, if any, expertise. 
The problem, though, is that with the internet, the line between novice and expert gets blurred. When I was a teenager, it was pretty easy. Printed materials generally tended to be more reliable and when they weren’t, there was usually some cue. If that occult book had a very cheesy looking illustration of a Renaissance woman surrounded by pentacles, you knew it was cheesy. If it was some hastily drawn and pasted together zine xeroxed at Kinkos, you knew that it was just some guy’s random views on things. These days, it’s easy for someone that knows nothing to get a blog that is indistinguishable from an expert’s blog. Ideas get transmitted on the basis on popularity, not merit. Someone can misunderstand something in fundamental ways which can lead to a complete distortion, but if the person saying it is in a venue with a high number of novices, then the inaccurate interpretation becomes the dominant one. 

It’s not really surprising that this happened. In the early 2000s, the internet enjoyed an explosion in terms of user numbers. A lot of people got online and as a result, the trend in technology was to make it accessible. Around 2005 or so, Web 2.0 gained prominence. The mailing lists and independent websites of the late 1990s started going away and they were replaced by uniform sites oriented towards communicating with people one already knew. Online diaries were replaced by blogging services. The focus became on making it easy for anyone to get online. Of course, the increase in users meant that more and more news sources were setting up their own blogs to stay relevant, making one person’s uninformed opinion nearly indistinguishable from a valid news source. Worse, respected news sources have started giving blog columns to recent journalism graduates without requiring the same journalistic standards as they would a printed or broadcasted editorial piece. In short, information has become a tangled, confusing mess. 

The younger generation has grown up around all of this and knows that the internet has some reliable information. (After all, even academic journals cite websites from time to time.) It’s the parsing out of that information that’s tricky. If my experience teaching college is any indication, instructors in post-secondary education are more concerned with having a fun, entertaining, interactive classroom than ensuring  students have an adequately rigorous education and are prepared to think and evaluate information critically. I suspect we have standardized tests to thank for this one. When your job depends on getting high test scores, you’ll do whatever it takes to keep your students engaged, and God forbid, you try to intellectually stimulate them by including anything that they won’t have to regurgitate on an exam. University professors, concerned with their jobs thanks to the excessive weight placed on student evaluations, imitate the high school teachers that created this problem.

I know of one very expensive university in particular where most of the students graduated without ever having written a ten page paper. Despite the $40,000 a year price tag, the college wasn’t teaching adequate research skills and the professors were too worried about evaluations to stress the students out by assigning the very sort of papers that would teach them the skills they need to be competitive in the job market. This seems to be the norm more than the exception. Potential employers, cynical due to what they see as a lack of preparedness in college grads, have taken to hiring only experienced candidates or those graduating from universities with an untarnished track record. 

The only way out of this is to require critical thinking at the high school level. Students are parsing through information at a much earlier age than ever before. Yet, every day, the line between reliable and unreliable sources blurs further. The only way out of this is to teach kids how to think about information. How to identify a credible source, how to spot logical fallacies, how to recognize when something is based on evidence rather than hyperbole. Intellectually, students are absolutely capable of handling such a course by the time they’re fifteen. Educators either can’t keep up with the technology or use it in a manner much like using a laser pointer with a cat. (“Look, kids, I’m tweeting my lecture! Woohoo, look at me!”) You can’t possibly cover all of the changes in technology in a way that will be meaningful to a diverse group of instructors. Telling students what sources are reliable, while a good start, is just a Band-Aid solution and ultimately doesn’t help them to become better thinkers and researchers. If you teac