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Forget the Kids--It's the Adults Online Who Need Critical Thinking Skills

Stephen Downes points to a column by Larry Magid on the need for today's young people to develop critical thinking skills that will help them better evaluate what they read online. In it, Magid talks about the fact that in the old days" of mass media we had "trusted" news sources that we could generally rely on for the "truth." With the proliferation of media in the Internet age, this has changed. As a result, he says:

Today's media environment provides an opportunity--and responsibility--for parents and schools to teach critical thinking. Not only must young people learn to "consider the source" of what they take in but also think critically about what they post in a world where just about every young person is now potentially an author, photographer, and videographer. Kids--who may never even know who Walter Cronkite was--need to have a miniature version of him inside their head by asking questions such as "Is this true?" and "How do I know it's true?." And when they're about to post they need to think carefully before they broadcast their own versions of "the way it is."

I find articles like this to be pompous in the extreme. They are condescending to kids and dangerous for adults.  They lull us into thinking that somehow we have learned to think critically about online content, despite the fact that we were the ones who grew up in an era when news and information from "trusted" sources was not questioned and therefore we never learned the fine art of skepticism. Meanwhile, it's our young people who are growing up in a world where it's clear that you need to question everything, and absorbing the lessons that go with that experience as they grow.

I've been on the receiving end of countless emails from adults who send me the latest urban legend as though it were truth. Never received one from a young person.  Most kids I know would check out that urban legend at Snopes before sending it on, while most adults don't even know what Snopes is. 

Despite the fact that only 5% of sexual abuse victims are abused by a stranger, it's the adults who are the frantic victims of "stranger danger" thinking, fueled by Internet and TV stories that make it sound like MySpace is more dangerous than your "trusted" neighbor.

It's kids who recognize that you can Photoshop a picture to look like "truth," in part because they've actually done it themselves. They also know that you can do a fake Facebook page, write a false Wikipedia entry or say whatever you want in a blog post--again, because they've done these things or seen them done by someone else. 

If anyone needs training in critical thinking on the Internet, it's the adults who are still living in a world where media is something they consume unquestioningly because they've never had the experience of making it themselves. It's the adults who were raised on "authorities" and "experts," in a monocultural world where many subcultures remained hidden from view and therefore assumptions about "truth" and "fact" were not questioned. 

Our young people, on the other hand, are growing up in a world that's more transparent, where the web of links that we're developing helps them find the more complicated "truths" that underlie what we've always seen as "fact." Young people are the ones who see that transparency is the new objectivity because they have grown up Googling their way to source documents and "smoking guns." They relish disproving and questioning facts, like young people always have, but for once, they actually have tools at their finger tips that allow them to do it easily and at will.

I'm not saying that youth don't need to be critical thinkers or that there aren't areas where they could further develop their skills.  What I am saying, though, is that I'm not sure that it's their lack of critical thinking that's the issue. As they say on airplanes, put on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you. I think that before we start preaching to kids that they need to develop their critical thinking, we need to take a good hard look in the mirror at ourselves.


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Right on target! I sometimes think that we hold workshops on "Improving Student Critical Thinking on the Web" in hopes that some of it will rub off on the faculty! I am not sure any faculty would attend a workshop targeted at improving their own critical thinking.

"As they say on airplanes, put on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you." Love that quote! Not sure how to address teaching the grown-ups critical thinking skills. My friend who is all about teaching critical thinking skills in her high school English class used to be my number one urban myth e-mailer. I think she still passes on these urban myths, just not to me anymore ;) I think Britt is right; if we teach faculty how to improve student critical thinking then it may rub off. These critical thinking skills need to be taught in such a way that they are not just seen as being important in just one or two places; critical thinking skills are going to help you make important decisions about your finances, health etc.

What a breath of fresh air you are. Keep it coming.

Interesting analysis. Reminds me of a book by the Knapps called "One Potato, Two Potato" which argued that kids learn important skills by playing without adult interference.

Excellent points, Michele; this one's goin' in the FB feed for sure, and may even turn into a post on Shaping Youth as we use the 'role reversal' tactic often. (where kids teach parents and empower themselves concurrently!)

Also, whether it's media literacy, 'eco-literacy' or any other form of critical thinking skills conversation, one of the sites I use for case study examples (from politics to food labeling or body image) has an easy primer to get folks putting their 'question authority' hats on at any age: Quite helpful.

Keep up the great work!

"Meanwhile, it's our young people who are growing up in a world where it's clear that you need to question everything, and absorbing the lessons that go with that experience as they grow."

While I generally agree with your points here about adults and their lack of skepticism. I don't think that you have spent remotely enough time in a high school or middle school classroom to make your assessments about youth. Your above statement is horribly inaccurate, youth these days are no less impressionable then their idiot parents. Sorry.

I am finishing up my Masters in education and my wife is an educator. I work as a full time substitute in the same district as her. Critical thinking is an often talked about concept in education today but the amount of teachers that truly teach in depth critical thinking is a scant minority.

I have thrown away a myriad of junk mail to my mother of the type:

"Congratulations! You've won the grand prize! Please send $19.95 for shipping."

or the $10 check that you endorse to lock you into a life time of magazine subscriptions.

My mother taught me to be skeptical of envelopes that said "important" on them, since they never are important.

Though I'm technically quite competent on the computer, I'm not following the same trends as my daughter, and I'm fully counting on my daughter to rescue me from the scams of the future.

RE those who pass on ridiculous urban myths: One of the worst ones we know is married to a relative. We refer to her as "the family spammer". LOVE the point that you never get urban myth emails from kids!


Very, very well said, Michele. Kudos! The urban legend e-mail thing really hit home with me. I find myself periodically having to check Snopes b/c a relative has e-mailed some new threat to my toddler's well-being. It won't be long before he will be checking the facts himself, I'm sure, and replying go the relatives ;-)

Kia ora e Michele!

I do believe we may have a bit of homophily creeping in here. Perhaps just a tad? It's the old chicken-and-egg situation. Where do you start?

Well, we could start with tribal culture and celebrate a bit of that. But it takes us back to the beginning again. Biblically it's been said, "let he who throws the first stone . . . " and all that.

The fact is that most adults don't think deeply enough to understand what critical thinking is all about. Never mind the youngsters. It is not a skill possessed by most adults, and it is rarely a skill that can be easily imparted to a young learner.

We are at a crossroads with technology.

Children, many decades ago, stood as pedestrians at the crossroads in towns and cities. These times were dangerous on the road for adult and child alike, for neither knew exactly what was required to save disaster. A road safety culture developed. It involved more than just parent and child.

We're still trying to get it right. But how do we supervise and care for young pedestrians today? It can only be done through careful adult supervision, lest we simply let the 3, 4 and 5 year olds loose on the busy streets - on their own.

Sure, there are some adults who are not responsible. Sure, they might even get run over themselves. Sure, you or I wouldn't trust them to teach road safety to children. But someone has to do it. And it's not going to be the children.

So who does? Do we let children find out for themselves that it's fatal to do 'that'?

Come on. Let's have some critical thinking.

Catchya later

Thanks for all the comments, everyone (and here's hoping that my own comment here actually posts!)

I'm happy to see that I'm not the only ongoing victim of emailed urban myths. I also would like to get rid of people who email me animated gifs, but that's another story. :-)

Ken--I hear what you're saying. My primary point here is that adults act as though they have the monopoly on critical thinking and that kids can't do it without us "teaching" them. I don't believe that this is entirely true. I think that the mere fact that the younger generation is growing up in a time when social media makes it easier to question authority means that they are absorbing some of these lessons better than adults have. And in the end, we're all just learning how to adapt to this changing world, aren't we?

Kia ora e Michele!

I don't believe that humans have ever lived at a time during the last several hundred years when it wasn't a changing world.

But teaching critical thinking? I wonder about that one, I really do.

There are some things that . . .

Catchya later

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