The Best Defense against Fake News

In a world full of conflicting, misleading, and even intentionally deceptive claims, there’s an urgent need for people to engage in critical thinking — and our schools need to teach thinking skills early.

Many schools and organizations have been working to develop students’ critical-thinking capacities in recent years, and across these efforts, educators have landed on a few core insights. The most important of these? Critical thinking does not come naturally. Better reasoning must be deliberately cultivated. In short, there’s growing consensus around the world around how to teach smarter thinking, as well as clear evidence that this improves student outcomes.

In the U.S., for example, there’s a lot of talk about the value of critical thinking and its place among what are often called 21st century skills. In our nation’s highly decentralized school system, however, efforts to actually teach critical thinking have been patchy, despite the fact that approaches are inexpensive and relatively easy to implement. Instead, a number of nonprofit organizations have stepped into the gap.

One powerful approach to critical thinking is How I Decide, an educational nonprofit based in Philadelphia. To help high school students make smarter decisions, the organization has created a series of three- to four-minute-long videos, each of which addresses a concept related to critical thinking. 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. To that end, How I Decide videos address availability bias (our tendency to rely on the information that comes most readily to mind) and confirmation bias (our propensity to look for information that supports views we already hold).

The nonprofit has also found a smart way to get students engaged in these lessons: It ties them to a subject in which many of them are already interested — fantasy football — through a program called GM Genius (that’s GM as in General Manager).

Whenever players log in to check on the status of their chosen lineup, one of the critical-thinking videos pops up, giving instant practical value to a lesson on, say, distinguishing skill from luck, or using “expected value” to make better predictions.

This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Schools around the world have been taking on the issue of critical thinking, in many cases focused on giving students a dedicated process or methodology to improve their reasoning.

Teachers at Eltham High School in Australia, for example, have developed a structured curriculum organized around promoting critical thinking. Students at Eltham, a large public school northeast of Melbourne, are led through a five-part process as they engage in the interdisciplinary study of English, science, and humanities.

Teachers first work on generating curiosity about the subject; then teachers and students together explore the key ideas embedded in texts. Next comes a process of making connections among facts and ideas. At this point, teachers begin to allow students to work more autonomously, as they “investigate, examine, critically evaluate, and work out how to communicate” their developing understandings.

The final stage of the critical thinking process requires students to reflect on and demonstrate their new knowledge, along with asking and answering a series of questions: “What have I learned? What have I become? How will my new knowledge influence the way I behave and the way I learn, in school and in the broader community? Where to from here?

Teachers at Eltham recognize this essential fact: Critical thinking must be practiced until it becomes a habit of mind. They make sure to offer students practical tools and guidelines that make concrete the often abstract-seeming enterprise of critical thinking.

Take the Fishbone Diagram, for example — a simple line drawing featuring a thick central spine with thinner “bones” projecting out from either side. Students are taught to make and fill in the diagram to help them identify important ideas and connect them to their central proposition. Or consider the Rabbit Rule, which dictates that any significant term or concept that appears in an argument’s contention must also appear in one of its premises. Why the name? Just as they can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat, students are told, they can’t drive home a point that hasn’t been presented earlier in their argument.

The real-world usefulness of critical thinking is at the heart of another program, the Informed Health Choices curriculum, offered to elementary school students in central Uganda. The ability to think critically about medical claims is important in a country where herbal concoctions and vitamin supplements are advertised as treatments for HIV/AIDS. (No doubt, such skills are necessary as well in our own nation, where actress and lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow peddles an $85 “set of chakra-healing crystals” that have been “energetically cleansed with sage.”)

The Ugandan program addresses a dozen concepts that are crucial to assessing health and medical claims, lessons such as: “Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe”; “Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments”; and “Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.”

Efforts to teach critical thinking can show clear results. In Uganda, the effectiveness of the program was tested by administering a multiple-choice quiz to participating students and to students who had not received the intervention. The students who had taken part in the program got 62 percent of the answers right, compared with 43 percent for students at the control schools. Results of the randomized controlled trial were published in the medical journal The Lancet.

Like GM Genius, Informed Health Choices delivers concepts related to critical thinking in an appealing format: an instructional guide that resembles a comic book, with illustrations of people engaging in familiar activities — using cow dung to treat a burn, for example.

The particular topics to which students must apply critical thinking will vary from place to place, of course. It’s unlikely that American students would have to evaluate the efficacy of cow dung, although they might well encounter the false claim that vaccines cause autism. But the need to impart the capacity to think critically to young people is surely universal.

“This article first appeared on the website of the education publication The 74 Million.

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.

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