A valid buzz surrounds the importance of teaching students to think critically when reading, looking at visual media or listening to arguments. Many international 1st-year university students are products of a believe-what-you’re-told, there-is-a-right-answer educational system. As a result, questioning does not come naturally. And so, I want to devote a couple posts to ways I try to instigate this new ability.
Idiom origins revealed. Or not.
In an initial lesson, as my program is integrated with a 1st year History course, I suggest to students that they are going to write an informative paper on life during the 1500s. I ask them to describe what they imagine life at the time to be like. Not surprisingly, they mention the poverty, the dirt, the lack of technology, the kings and queens. With these preconceptions now in place, since the internet is the go-to for initial research on an unfamiliar topic, we Google “life in the 1500s”. What results at the top is this website, a section of which I refer to below.
As you read through, you see that these preconceptions are confirmed. For example:
The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, — hence the saying “dirt poor.”
What’s clever is plausible ideas are reinforced by explanations and references to common idioms (my personal favourite is “saved by the bell” at the end of #11). I ask students how they feel about the information they’ve learnt from this site, to which many are impressed with the recognised idioms and their apparent origins. I ask them if they believe everything–mostly silence and sheepish glances at each other follow. They know because I’ve asked the question, the answer should be no. Why would the teacher give us wrong information? Why would someone lie about this information so that others would be misled?
I introduce the idea of red flags: warning signs, in this case, that should ring a critical thinker’s alarm bells. After taking a look at some of the ways to evaluate the reliability of a website (University of California, Berkeley) like motivation, authority, currency and type of site.
Eyes squint the so-called facts.
…………………Skepticism seeps in.
An (convincing) open letter to educators
Next up: an impassioned video blog about why university education is no longer valuable.
I leave it up to students to thinking about his message critically. Beyond comprehension questions and some guided questions (on the handout below), I give few correct/incorrect clarifications.
Surviving Pandora’s box
This awakening to the idea that information needs to be evaluated before it can be trusted seems to leave a number of students unsettled. This Pandora’s box opens up to questioning what they’ve always held true about their own countries and high school education. But they recover and are better for it. Their initiation into critical thought may be disconcerting at first, but over time and with practice, it proves to help students build more reliable arguments and make informed decisions.
Inspired by Shelly Terrell’s Goal 6: investigate and instigate, increasing student ability to ask questions without defining what those questions must be or what the answers absolutely are allows them to develop evaluative skills at their own pace. What delightful surprise comes is a critical eye demonstrated on not only what information they receive, but that that they produce.
A related post, A reflection on teaching critical thinking, can be read here.