Critical thinking and information literacy – Part I

Screenshot of “The Jackalope Conspiracy”
What do you think about the information on this web site?

Could critical thinking skills be learned as a self-extending system?

Can children be taught how to think critically within an information literacy context? That is, it seems to be a consistent educational goal that students of all ages are able to critically evaluate the information that is conveyed to them. So, how does the ability to think critically develop? Is it like learning to read? Is it more like learning to play soccer? Or, it is more like something else?  I have been trying to answer these questions for years, both as a teacher and as a learner.

My best guess at the moment is that educators need to conceive of teaching critical thinking as developing a self-extending system in students and that learning to be critical about/of the information is more like to learning to be literate (readers/writers/speakers of language). I am beginning to research the parallels between Reading Recovery instruction and critical thinking instruction.  More on this in a later post…

Facilitating the development of critical thinking is nothing new to educators; being able to critically analyze information is an essential skill in learning and knowledge building. In the past, students might have found information in a book or newspaper, on the radio, from a friend, in a diary, and so on. These days, the information is usually digital and is found on the web, in an eBook, or through a mobile app. Wherever the information comes from, I believe it is critical that students develop a filtering system that is sensitive in various ways. Information cannot, and should not, simply pass from the medium that conveys it into the receiving brain without any checks and balances.

Consuming information is like consuming food

Years ago when I decided  that I was going to try to explicitly teach critical thinking skills to my (elementary) students, I needed a way to explain what I meant to my younger students. I had a few ideas that I used. One that worked quite well was drawing a comparison between consuming food and consuming information:

  • Be choosy – Do you grab the first food you see on a buffet table and put it in your mouth when you are hungry? Probably not… usually you are looking for something you know you like or that you think would look good to eat.  You should be just as choosy with the information you find.  The  web provides information like a buffet dinner but you have to be choosy/picky (that is, critical).
  • Use your senses and past experience – When you choose food to eat, your body has built-in systems to tell you if it is good food or not – before you decide to put food into your mouth to taste it, you use your sense of sight and smell to check it out; you might even touch or squeeze the food to see if it is ripe or fresh.
  • Eating information – Eating information is no different to eating food but, before your brain does the tasting, you need to also rely on your other senses and past experiences with information.  Use your eyes to look for clues about the author, the reason for the information’s existence, advertising.  Use your nose to smell out fishiness (like bias) or foul odors like information that is past the expiry date.  Past experience (i.e., current knowledge) must also be tapped into-how does this new information fit with what you already know?  Learning and practicing these things became the  focus of various exercises and challenges.

I am planning to write more on this topic… Developing a critical thinking filter with students is a very interesting and complex problem but one that is, I feel, well worth exploring, discussing and figuring out.  In Part II, my plan is to reflect on some current strategies I have used, and that I have seen other use, to address this problem.

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