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How should students be taught critical thinking, especially in a world where misinformation proliferates? The Masthead is debating the educational psychologist Alan Lesgold’s provocative proposal: Evaluating information from differing perspectives is a skill best taught outside of school. Teaching material is limited in the classroom, he argues, and teachers can be biased.

The debate is in full swing in our forums. This email will give you the highlights. Alan set out his argument a few weeks ago; you can read it here. Members have been responding to his arguments. At the top of this email, we cut to the chase to give you Alan’s responses to his critics. If you’d like a deeper dive, read on for six thought-provoking counterarguments from members, who are writing under their forum usernames. Their contributions are lightly edited.

High-school students should attend extracurricular programs focused on how to evaluate information from differing perspectives.

By Alan Lesgold

In writing my recent book, I struggled with two pretty clear facts.

First, schools are complex systems and are very hard to change with 100 percent success, especially in a country with well over 10,000 school districts, each making its own decisions with its own limited resources, and where many wealthy people have simply opted out of using public education for their kids. Given the low support for adequate school budgets and the dependence on community taxation, pressures to produce higher test scores for less money will continue and will interfere with rapid improvement of schools, especially those serving less privileged kids.

Second, given the low respect and salaries for teachers, along with some variability in the quality of teacher-preparation programs, I am not convinced that all teachers are or can quickly become competent in teaching critical thinking and the evaluation of claims. A good many teachers do so excellently, and I greatly commend their efforts and dedication. But for the foreseeable future, some students, especially those less wealthy than their peers, will not always have great teachers, and not all great teachers will be free to do what needs to be done to prepare children for the artificial-intelligence age.

So here is the choice, as I see it. We can focus on fixing the system and simply accept that we will fail a lot of kids until we succeed in making all schools work as well as the best ones do. Or, we can invest considerable effort in supplementing the school system with out-of-school programming.

Read Alan’s full conclusion here. Below are arguments from some of our members who disagree. Students need to learn critical thinking, they argue, but within the structure of a school curriculum.

Critical-thinking skills are a civic imperative.

By @ray

If our students cannot learn to determine what is true inside the classroom, why do we send our children there at all? I would rather a typical high-school graduate be able to discern truth from lies than diagram a sentence, dissect a frog, play football … The problem with our school systems often lies in the dissociation between school and life to such a degree that a reasonable person can make a reasonable assertion that the most important skill to learn must be learned outside of the classroom.  

Try the library first.

By @mjbates

You are ignoring a precious resource still to be found in many, if not all, schools: the librarian. Media literacy, or for a better name, information literacy, is a core function of school libraries. Many teachers themselves do not know how to find and evaluate nonobvious, non-Google-curated information, and so are hesitant to wrap it into their classroom instruction. You want children to develop media literacy? Bring in the highly trained experts in this subject matter—the librarians.   

Trust the teachers.

By @marti.schwartz

Having taught grades K–12 for 40-plus years, I can vouch that there are many teachers who understand that teaching kids to think is the most important skill we can develop. Doing that in a way that helps them make sense of the world and function as a member of our society is a constant goal. Few teachers I know would waste their time “teaching to the test”—we have an eye on far more important goals. Trust the teachers—and yes, replace those who do not understand the responsibility they have to our society—but don’t try to separate critical thinking from the work that goes on, or should go on, every day in every classroom, no matter what level.  

The humanities are well suited to teaching critical-thinking skills.

By @justin.c.robinson.us

The center of human action is emotion, not reason. Show Captain America: Civil War in class. (My example is not provided for its perfection, but for popularity and familiarity with the “text” before class begins.) Briefly discuss deontology and utilitarianism. Then ask why Cap is emotionally motivated to choose John Locke (anger at past bullying), and why Tony Stark is emotionally a devotee of John Stuart Mill (guilt, self-hatred). Don’t ask who is “right.” Not at first. When asked what this has to do with real life, we answer: Everybody does this. The emotions, the worldview, exist before the justification. Fiction is one safe space for working through such complicated problems.   

Critical thinking starts in elementary school.

By @shannon

High school is a little late to be teaching kids “how to think.” They aren’t kids anymore. They just want to do whatever arbitrary tasks the “adults” have put in front of them to get on with their life. At the elementary level, we should focus on two learning skills: how to acquire and share knowledge and how to solve problems … Let’s introduce kids to philosophy (critical thinking) as early as we can.

Begin with the basics.

By @mjbates

Let’s consider a more modest goal for information literacy for high-school students. The student:

  • knows a wide range of useful information channels and technologies (online access, smartphones, social media, and yes, books and libraries and archives) and knows how to use them;
  • knows a wide range of information sources (books, journal articles, databases, podcasts, image sources, sound sources, etc.) and knows how to use them;
  • has learned an array of techniques to evaluate information sources, such as how to assess the credibility and likely bias of a source, markers of quality in sources (for example, peer-reviewed journals versus popular magazines), and so on.

Once a student has developed this wider awareness, it will be evident to the student that information comes from a massive number of paths and in a huge array of forms, of high and low quality, and possibly carries biases that it is important to be aware of. That’s a good start on being the citizen who can evaluate claims and information sources.  

In the rest of his response to fellow members, Alan weighed the pros and cons of his proposal, and then broadened the lens of the debate.

Privatized add-on programs have virtues and flaws.

By Alan Lesgold

The advantage of the supplementary approach is that it can be pursued incrementally, and by forces beyond government:

  • Foundations already are engaged in trying to improve education, and they are a significant financial force.
  • Corporations that need workers who can think critically also have incentives to support add-on programming.
  • Community groups will find ways to make some good things happen even on low budgets.

The disadvantage of the add-on approach is that it diverts resources from those used to make all schools great. We can reasonably disagree on which path will do the most good.

I just got back from a couple of weeks in eastern Europe, where several people told me that their countries are struggling just as ours is, and that they see improved education in critical thinking and information evaluation as essential to their countries’ survival. Our flavor of the problem is unique, but the overall problem is worldwide.

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