The Trouble with Critical Thinking
By: Jamie Gregory
I am a member of several private teacher groups on Facebook, and I recently followed one discussion with great interest. Members (teachers and parents) questioned teachers’ use of CNN 10, “a 10-minute educational news show that appears as a daily digital video. CNN 10 serves a growing audience interested in compact on-demand news broadcasts ideal for explanation seekers on the go or in the classroom.”
Commenters conveyed concern over educators sharing “fake news” from CNN and pushing their personal political beliefs on students by sharing this news site. The first comment shown below voices a common belief that all mainstream media is not just fake but propaganda. Others pushed back, pointing out that CNN 10 is not CNN, sharing the All Sides media bias chart. Many comments also focused on the need for students to learn how to study current events using news sources.
These comments show how important it is for students to encounter information, even if it is biased. Students should learn that even news coverage itself can show bias, and should spend time looking at a wide variety of news sources. That does not mean educators are requiring students to think a certain way about the news itself, or that they are requiring only one particular interpretation of a news event.
The larger point is that if we want to teach students how to critically think about information, they must encounter information.
And it’s not about “wanting” to teach students this skill: educators are required to according to state and national standards.
South Carolina’s English Language Arts (ELA) standards to include a strand related to inquiry-based learning. Some address critical thinking and media literacy (grades 9-12):
- Standard 3.3: Gather information from a variety of primary and secondary sources and evaluate for perspective, validity, and bias.
- Standard 4.1: Employ a critical stance to analyze relationships and patterns of evidence to confirm conclusions.
- Standard 4.2: Evaluate findings; address conflicting information; identify misconceptions; and revise.
The Common Core State Standards require similar skills:
- ELA -Literacy RI.11-12.7: “Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.”
- ELA-Literacy RH.11-12.8: “Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.”
Students should be able to identify misconceptions, use a critical stance, and purposefully find conflicting sources of information. Educators cannot help students develop these skills without allowing access to information sources which some deem “controversial” or “biased.”
Of course, standards are not always without fault. I previously wrote about bias in the new South Carolina Social Studies standards, particularly that the word “slavery” does not appear. Analyzing the standards themselves could prove to be an enlightening assignment.
Furthermore, consider that one of President Trump’s stated education goals for his second term is “teach American exceptionalism.” This Politico article quotes Trump as saying, “‘The only path to unity is to rebuild a shared national identity focused on common American values and virtues of which we have plenty […] This includes restoring patriotic education in our nation’s schools, where they are trying to change everything that we have learned.’” But would this create a false dichotomy, where any ideas not teaching American exceptionalism are not patriotic? And if teachers were required to only include ideas teaching American exceptionalism, where does that leave room for critical thinking?
The trouble with critical thinking is that it requires the thinker to consider something different, possibly even uncomfortable. It implies there may not be one “truth,” but rather exploration and deliberation and the celebration of nuance. What could be more American than that?
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.