What does it mean to be a critical thinker? Does a common definition actually exist? The easy answer to this question, is no. After much research on the topic, I have come to realize there is not one single commonly agreed upon definition for the term “critical thinking”. For the purposes of this post I have decided to use Hitchcock’s definition of “careful goal-directed thinking” (2018). Part of being an educator is teaching my students how to think, as opposed to what to think. They need to be able to evaluate all kinds of informational input and make sense of it. Being digitally literate is one of the most important skills that educators will give students.
Module 2 is all about the Digital Citizen Advocate. We were asked to identify a professional value that is important to us and I chose critical thinking. With critical thinking and media use in mind, I developed two questions that I wanted to develop further:
- What are our current educational practices for teaching students to critically examine online media sources? Do these practices need to be updated for our digital world?
- Are we offering training to our educators to teach these strategies to students? What trainings are currently available?
The ISTE standard I have chosen to focus on for this module is 7c: Support educators and students to critically examine the sources of online media and identify underlying assumptions (ISTE, n.d.). Working with young, impressionable students who are constantly surrounded by digital technology makes me realize just how vulnerable they are. As stated above, I believe I need to teach my students how to think and provide them with the tools they need to evaluate all kinds of informational input. I believe that critical thinking is one of the most essential skills and values that I can impart upon them.
When I pursued my Master’s in Teaching, my university had me write a personal philosophy of education. One of my cornerstone beliefs comes from my mother, she told me from a young age that if you can read, you can do anything. While I still believe this to be a fundamental truth, I have come to learn that what we choose to read is really the defining feature of education, both in school and long after. With the development of the internet and the absolute over saturation of information in our lives it is time that we start teaching our students, teachers, and really all citizens how to be digitally wise. Marc Prensky (2013) wrote that digital wisdom means making wiser decisions because of technology, he also states that it is something that can be learned and must be taught. This is where critical thinking comes to importance. We need to teach our students critical thinking skills in an online world, this is sometimes referred to as media literacy.
Critical thinking research
It is unavoidable that educating people how to be digitally wise is going to become a responsibility of educators, in many ways this has already happened. Ribble and Miller (2013) stated that use and misuse of technology needs to be addressed in our schools. Administrators and educators need to come up with policies regarding the “appropriate” use of technology and teach students what that means (Ribble & Miller, 2013). Ribble and Miller (2013) advocate for the development of a code of conduct for students to help them differentiate between online tools used for school and social media. I would take this a step further and say that we also need to teach our students to think critically about their use of technology both in school and out of school.
Critical thinking and the ability to assess whether or not something is factual is not just a skill that young students need to develop, it is a skill that digital immigrants and digital natives need to develop. Wineburg and McGrew (2019), conducted a study with three different groups: 10 PhD historians, 10 professional fact checkers and 25 first-year college students. One of the major lessons of this study is that without training, even some of our most educated minds struggled with identifying expert websites when compared with websites designed to misinform (Wineburg & McGrew, 2019). The research also showed that the fact checkers relied on a method of website checking called “lateral reading”, which involves leaving the website you landed on and opening tabs horizontally in your web browser to fact check and verify information from the original site (Wineburg & McGrew, 2019). This study demonstrates that the need to teach critical thinking and media literacy skills is a cross-generational need.
Critical Thinking Examples in the Classroom
In our current educational and political climate there are certain buzz words/phrases that really cause a lot of controversy. One of those buzz phrases is “fake news”. In previous years I have taught lessons about skepticism and how to cross check websites for accuracy and validity. One of my favorite websites to use is titled “Help Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus” by Lyle Zapato (20). This website is designed to be a very believable hoax website. I ask my students to investigate the website and we do three days of lessons on how to determine if this is a reliable source. The idea is to use goal directed thinking to assess the reliability of the website. The essential question for the lesson is: “how do I know if something is a hoax?” This lesson aligns with the Triple E Framework.
Screenshot of the Help Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website
Educators have been using this website to teach skeptical thinking for years. Pilgrim et al. (2019) used it in their study on critical thinking and reasoning with elementary school students, and previous studies have also been done with middle and high school students. The authors found that the students who were more successful in identifying the hoax had a healthy level of skepticism (2019). Rheingold (2012) advocates for making skepticism your default when searching online. This is something we need to teach our students, so that we can teach them how to figure out what information is real and what is not.
For a different class, I used Rheingold’s method to create a video for my students on how to triangulate website credibility. While the 10 year time frame I mention in the video may seem arbitrary, it does help when looking for recent, up to date research; it is a starting point. Also in the video, I mention citations, these alone do not prove credibility but they do provide a good place to start the reading laterally process.
Another great strategy for fact checking websites is the SIFT Method, which is a simple acronym that would be relatively easy to teach to adults and children alike. It stands for Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context (Caulfield, 2019). SIFT was developed by Mike Caulfield, the Director of Blended and Networked Learning at Washington State University, Vancouver. What I like about this method is that it is easy to explain and understand the steps involved. The biggest hurdle that I have experienced in my classroom is convincing students that it is worth their time and effort to either read laterally or SIFT when they come across information online.
To address the questions of: are we offering training to our educators to teach these strategies to students? What trainings are currently available? I found research by Cherner and Curry (2019) on the training of pre-service teachers. They conducted their study at a university in the Pacific Northwest that has an instruction technology class as part of their teacher training program, this course is aligned with the ISTE standards for educators (Cherner & Curry, 2019). I found this interesting because the course I took in 2017 for my teaching degree was not aligned to any national or international standards for education technology. This tells me that our education preparation programs are not standardized. My class was geared towards how to use different programs in the classroom, but it did not address ISTE or the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) standards. I feel that this is an area of education and teacher preparation where there is a lot of room for improvement.
A simple Google search on “teacher professional development media literacy” provides multiple websites offering training. In fact, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) pops up on these search results, probably because Google is using my location to make my search results more applicable to me. According to the OSPI website (n.d.) Washington state has passed at least two legislative bills regarding digital citizenship and media literacy. OSPI uses definitions from both ISTE and NAMLE and states that professional support will be provided “for teachers, focused on integrating digital citizenship and media literacy in all core standards, starting with English Language Arts and Social Studies” (OSPI, n.d.). There is a recognized need for the training of educators, not only pre-service teachers, but all teachers.
As an English teacher, I refer to my teaching standards when designing lessons. The Common Core State Standard for writing in English Language Arts for grade 7 addresses digital sources only one time. “Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation,” standard W7.8 (Common Core State Standards Initiative, n.d.). I address this standard when we work on research papers for the year. As stated above, we always start with a lesson on hoax websites to remind students that they need to be skeptical about what they read online, then we go on to discuss what kinds of websites can generally be trusted and we move through the steps I discuss in the YouTube video above. This is my personal method. What is the best standardized method? How does this become a standardized method and does this need to be worked into our state standards for each subject that is taught? Another way that media literacy is addressed in schools is through digital communications classes, this is typically taught as an elective. This is a great venue to have discussions regarding digital citizenship and media literacy, however, if these classes are electives, how are we, as educators, ensuring that this information reaches every single student?
As sometimes happens with reflections, I have more questions than answers for this post.
Caulfield, M. (2019, June 19). SIFT (The four moves). Hapgood. https://hapgood.us/2019/06/19/sift-the-four-moves/
Cherner, T., & Curry, K. (2019). Preparing pre-service teachers to teach media literacy: A response to “fake news”. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 11(1), 1-31. https://doi.org/10.23860/JMLE-2019-11-1-1
Common Core State Standards Initiative. (n.d.). English Language Arts standards: Writing: Grade 7. Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/7/
Dunworth, M. (2021, September 11). Thinking skeptically while checking sources [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/pSU9jrO4GPs
Hitchcock, D. (2018). Critical Thinking. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/#DefiCritThin
International Society for Technology in Education. (n.d.). ISTE standards for coaches. International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
Pilgrim, J., Vasinda, S., Bledsoe, C., & Martinez, E. (2019). Critical thinking is critical: Octopuses, online sources, and reliability reasoning. The Reading Teacher, 73(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1800
Prensky, M. (2012). Epilogue: From digital natives to digital wisdom. In, From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning (pp. 201-216). Corwin Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781483387765
Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online. MIT Press.
Ribble, M., & Miller, T. (2013). Educational leadership in an online world: Connecting students to technology responsibly, safely, and ethically. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(1). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1011379
Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. (n.d.). Digital citizenship and media literacy. Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.k12.wa.us/policy-funding/school-technology/internet-safety-digital-citizenship-and-media-literacy/digital-citizenship-media-literacy
Wineburg, S., & McGrew, S. (2019). Lateral reading and the nature of expertise: Reading less and learning more when evaluating digital information. Teachers College Record, 121. https://www-tcrecord-org.ezproxy.spu.edu/library/content.asp?contentid=22806
Zapato, L. (2019, April 2). The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. Help Save The Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus From Extinction. https://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/