Critical thinking has been defined as “the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe.” It means making an objective analysis and being fair-minded while rejecting false or misleading information.
Critical thinking is also a self-guided and self-disciplined process. It takes effort. How, though, can students develop critical thinking skills in a world in which mountains of information—much of it incorrect or misleading—is available at their fingertips?
Just as you needed training and experience before you were ready to teach, your students require your guidance and relevant experience to mold their critical thinking skills for use later in life.
Below, we will discuss how research skills, inquisitiveness, debates, and discussions can strengthen critical thinking. We will also outline common logical fallacies that students can be made aware of.
Develp Their Research Skills
The Montessori method can be useful in teaching critical thinking skills in connection with digital technology. How?
This teaching method allows students to explore topics that interest them at their own pace. Starting with a topic relevant to the curriculum, allow the student to research the topic digitally, either using encyclopedic software or the internet. When they find a portion of the topic especially interesting, encourage them to “go down the rabbit hole,” following links or conducting new but related searches.
In addition to discovering the joys of research in this hands-on way, educators can help students to think critically about the sources they are accessing. There was a time when warning students to choose .org websites over Wikipedia was sufficient. With the rise of AI-generated content and rampant “fake news,” however, much more discernment is needed.
Help your student reason on questions such as:
- Where is the information coming from? Is it a trusted resource? Does the author express bias?
- Does the source seem to have an agenda it is promoting or does it provoke an emotional reaction?
- Can you find the same information from another trusted source?
- Does the design of the website give you confidence in the source? Are there frequent spelling or grammatical errors?
- Does the source make promises that sound too good to be true?
- Has the source disseminated false information before, or does it have a reputation for accuracy?
You might implement a fact-checking activity, presenting students with a news article and having them verify the information using other sources. Or, have them write their own falsified news story to understand the methods used. These activities will help students interpret the resources they use and avoid misinformation.
Encourage Questions, Debates, and Discussions
Encourage your students to challenge the information they are presented with, even when it seems to be “conventional wisdom” or widely accepted as fact. This often leads to the type of research described above.
Questions from others are also helpful. Discussions and debates can help students to think critically about their own beliefs and explain them logically to others. Such metacognitive reflection gives students time to “push back on their own thinking to analyze and question their assumptions.” This is especially important in a digital landscape in which many feel pressured to post opinions instantly. Students can learn that it’s okay—even beneficial and desirable—to take time to think things through before acting.
Ask your students to solve a real-world problem—the more connected they are to the problem and its solution, the better. Let them express how their opinions changed after listening to their peers. This is also a good opportunity to help students listen and challenge others’ claims respectfully, rather than rejecting antithetical information without analysis.
Introduce diverse perspectives, especially if your students have a homogenous background. Use first-person accounts and videos to bring different viewpoints to life.
Identify Logical Fallacies
Logical fallacies are arguments that sound convincing but lack foundation. Sometimes, they are based on innocent mistakes while others are purposefully misleading.
One such fallacy is the Fallacy of Relevance—when someone uses arguments that are irrelevant to the end result. People try use them to “win” an argument, especially if they don’t have sound evidence for there position.
Three common relevance fallacies include:
- Ad hominem attacks—attempting to sully the other person’s character.
- Straw man arguments—distorting the other person’s claims by exaggerating or oversimplifying them.
- Red herrings—something that distracts people from the question at hand.
When students are aware of these common tactics, they can think critically about the information they take in and recognize fallacies for what they are.
Teaching critical thinking skills in a digital world is an arduous process—unlike phonics or simple mathematics, it can’t be accomplished during one class period. But when you guide your students by making it fun, using interesting examples relevant to their own experiences, and modeling critical thinking skills as an example to them, you impart your students with a gift—a skill that will benefit them throughout their lives.