Insights for Kids and Teenagers

Our public square isn’t what it used to be. But, if schools lead the way, media literacy education can help us rebuild civic society.If the damage to public discourse wasn’t clear already, the recent controversy over political advertising on social media platforms surely drove the point home. While Twitter’s Jack Dorsey announced a ban on such advertising, Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s decision to keep hosting political ads without subjecting it to rigorous fact-checking.

Young people are tomorrow’s news creators and news consumers, and will soon make future-shaping decisions based on what they believe to be true. High school students are also teenagers, though, and while they may be technologically savvy, they are often psychologically unsophisticated and eager to be part of a cause or group — making them easy marks for the purveyors of misinformation. Newseum has created an in-person and online course for fighting fake news – developed for teenagers, by teenagers.

Expeditionary Learning schools are grounded in the philosophy that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. To students at Two Rivers Public Charter School, critical thinking is simply school culture. In addition to classroom lessons, they work on subject-specific projects and showcase their findings to classmates, parents and teachers. The school has designed a critical thinking curriculum, including assessment tools and core constructs of effective reasoning.

A free online game called NewsFeed Defenders helps train students to spot disinformation online. iCivics — an education nonprofit founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — co-created the program along with the Annenberg Public Policy Center. This and other organizations offer media and digital literacy resources for students. Many digital literacy resources are for middle- and high-school aged youth, but kids as young as three are capable of casual reasoning and improving their critical thinking skills.

Innovations in educational technology have often sparked dramatic pronouncements, to be sure. Socrates, for example, famously observed that writing tools would impair people’s ability to remember. The Reboot Foundation recently explored the efficacy of education technology by analyzing two large achievement data sets. A growing body of evidence suggests that technology can have negative effects on student achievement.

Concept mapping is far from a new educational approach, but it can help students engage in improved thinking. It typically involves creating diagrams that visually represent a set of ideas. Argument mapping is a variation of concept mapping, and the approach encourages people to create diagrams of an argument’s contentions. A forthcoming research review argues that helping students create online organizers leads to stronger reasoning skills. The authors declare that mapping tools are simply “a very effective way to teach critical thinking.”

How I Decide, an educational nonprofit has created a series of three- to four-minute-long videos, each of which addresses a concept related to critical thinking to help high school students make smarter decisions. Available online, these videos teach students how to evaluate information, understand probability, and resist cognitive biases. The founders of the How I Decide program have grasped a key element of critical thinking: Students must be taught how to identify the weaknesses in others’ arguments as well as in their own thinking.

CUREs (course-based undergraduate research experiences) are becoming increasingly popular, implemented at hundreds of colleges and universities across the US. One widely-cited study found that at least 45 percent of students in its sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in their reasoning and communication skills during their first two years of college. Spurred by such findings, educators have sought to engineer new approaches. One that seems to be working: asking undergraduates to conduct actual scientific research through CUREs.