A critical thinking paradox

Okay… indulge me!

Try this experiment (and try it with your students, too!):

  • Activity #1  – Think of a topic in which you have a strong interest, and broad, expert knowledge/skill. Then, search the web and find three really good sources of information for that topic.
  • Activity #2 – Think of a topic in which you have no interest, no knowledge and no skill (in my own case, I might choose ‘the history of rug making’ or ‘how to successfully run a large law firm’). Then, search the web and find three really good sources of information for that topic.

If you are anything like I am, or like the many students who tried this experiment, you felt quite confident in your choices for Activity #1 but then felt rather lost making choices during Activity #2.

I am also reminded of the times when I happen to listen to morning talk radio or read op-ed pieces. When the topics are education or learning related, I am almost uncontrollably critical, evaluative, questioning and reflective. For most other topics, however, I might easily find myself convinced of the author’s viewpoint because it sounds reasonable or well-informed. The truth is I really don’t have an accurate understanding of the full context or background behind many issues.

And it is not as simplistic as this in practice; I could pretty quickly plot my level of expertise in any topic on a continuum, ranging from ignorant to expert. My contention is that the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to ‘think critically’ about information related to that topic.

I have always felt regular pangs of sympathy when I have worked with students and tried to facilitate their efforts to evaluate information they find online. They usually faced this paradox: A student doesn’t know about ‘something.’ Student looks up information about ‘something’ online. Student finds endless information about ‘something.’ Student has great difficulty knowing if the found information is ‘good’ information or not. Frustrated, student uses the first few Google search hits for ‘something’ as their sources of information. Does this sound familiar?

So, the Catch-22 is that the more one knows about a topic, the better one can think critically about that topic, and the better one can evaluate the value of new information related to that topic. However, the opposite is also true and that’s a wicked problem.

So, in response, I have endeavored in the past to provide students with ‘strategies’ for evaluating information they found online. Here is an old screenshot of one such set of strategies that I first assembled around 2002:

Early example of a ‘critical thinking’ strategy list

You probably see a lot of problems with using this kind of an approach. After using this with my junior and intermediate students for a few years, I did see some good things that came from it but, primarily, it had poor results. The good thing was that the students were learning about some characteristics of information and knowledge such as currency and bias. But the bad thing was that this list made the act of critical thinking even more daunting for my students. How do they know if someone is an expert or not? How can they really be sure if the information is up to date? Or, how does one really figure out purpose or bias when students have neither context nor background knowledge?

So, I still don’t really have an answer but I continue to learn and try new ideas and approaches with students. So far, I have learned that:

  • Learning to ‘do’ critical thinking, and learning about epistemological concepts, cannot happen in a few lessons or even in a unit. It is an ongoing, every day, all the time conversation. It’s a skill with many facets and dimensions like social skills or collaboration skills.
  • The more you know about something, the more you can make connections to other knowledge, and the better you can be critical about new information that comes your way.
  • Leading students through a series of engaging exercises and discussions about epistemology works better than trying to teach a set of ‘critical thinking considerations’ as displayed above. Fun exercises (such as ‘why no one knows REALLY knows how many moons Jupiter or Saturn has right now’ or ‘spot the fake web site’) can spark ongoing discussion about these ideas.
  • Adults tend to have an easier time being critical about new information because they have lived longer than children, have more experience, made more mistakes, have more knowledge, and so on. Many adults have general background knowledge about a wide variety of topics that at least gives them something to think with when being critical about new information (even they are not experts in the topic).
  • Thinking critically about information is ESSENTIAL for children to practice every day. One of my generation’s KEY skills was FINDING useful information. With today’s young learners, one of the KEY skills is thinking CRITICALLY about the information they (easily) find.

Other related things I think about:

  • What if the ‘expertise’ a person has involves information that might be widely considered spurious (e.g., government conspiracies, alien abductions, moon-landing hoax).
  • What constitutes truth when it comes to ‘news’ online? How can students navigate what is referred to as ‘fake news?’ Is the term ‘fake news’ just a trendy term meaning ‘biased news?’

I’m looking forward to learning your critical thoughts and ideas about this post! 🙂

2 thoughts on “A critical thinking paradox

Add yours

  1. Hello,

    Your point about being able to think critically about things we are more familiar with is something I truly had never considered before, but it’s something that I realize affects my life in many ways. I am a university student and this year I am taking a class on terrorism. Given that my focus is on education, psychology, and sociology, I have noticed that I am not able to be as involved in the class discussions because I lack an understanding of worldwide politics. I’ve also realized now that it’s important to expand my areas of learning whenever possible. I have noticed that as I have learned more in this class throughout the semester, I have been participating more actively in group discussions and analyzing the perspectives the professor and my classmates share. The strategies that you shared would also be very helpful for writing my research papers in the future. Finding sources is much more difficult when I am less familiar with the area of study.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Katherine! Your words made me think of something a student was talking about the other day – something to the effect of the more she learns, the more other things make sense… it was a reflection in the context of learning more and more about indigenous lived experiences and indigenous history as compared to traditional eurocentric histories… Personally, I have also found that, as the years go by, and I continue to learn and reflect, I make more and more connections to new things I learn… and I can also see how past understandings were shallow or missing other perspectives… thanks again for your comment!

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