Without delving too much into politics, it is of this geographer’s opinion that current affairs demonstrate how crucial the current need is for critical thinking. This blog entry looks into the importance of thinking critically, a tool to help fight ‘fake news’, and some resources to demonstrate that teaching skills (like critical thinking) can happen in tandem with teaching content.
What ever the sound-bite makers want to call it, we are in an era of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’. I feel that… as a critical thinker, scientist and a firm believer that truth and fact is necessary to improve quality of life and the world we live in… things are pretty concerning right now.
However, as educators we have the power to push back through both modelling and teaching critical thinking – something many young people do more than you think anyway. It just needs nurturing.
Earlier this week I gave some PGCE training about teaching critical thinking skills. I’ll take you through the highlights here, and make you aware of some excellent project-based fully-funded teacher CPD.
Kids are natural questioners
Those of us that live or work with the very young know they are constantly curious, and always asking ‘why’? From my experience as an ex-high school teacher, it seems that youngsters at some point lose that curiosity and become sponges and receivers instead. Why this is the case, exactly, I don’t know… I’m sure many theories can be offered: is our education system at fault? So focused on a content-heavy structure where achievement is based on the recall of knowledge? Or perhaps it’s a skewed interpretation and extension of ‘respect your elders’; that they should be obeyed and unquestioned?
I came across the below in a Facebook group I am a member of. Very interesting! I had this on the screen at the start of the PGCE training and asked them to direct their focus of their ‘settling down’ chat to it. What do you think?
I used this slide to lead into a discussion about what is meant by ‘critical thinking’ and why it is important. I would delve into these topics here, as they have been explored by many other educational practitioners and commentators. This article by Jo Coles is a very good example and well worth the extra read.
A simple tool to help students fight ‘fake news’ and bias
Those who know me personally know I’m pretty politically motivated – especially when it comes to environmental and LGBT+ issues. I like to think, and hope that, my morals and activism are based on fact and sound science. But how to cut through the noise? And how to model this to others who may not either have the patience or the interest to do so? Although I hold the scientific community in high regard, I don’t think it does a very good job communicating the importance and meaning of the work that they do in a way that is relevant to the general populace. So it’s no good telling people to look up the scientific research. This then leaves most at the mercy of the popular media interpreting the science – and this is where bias and agenda come into play.
I came across this tool as a result of being fed up by the rhetoric coming from both sides of the EU referendum in 2016. Through my social media accounts and conversations with friends and family, I did my best to steer people to being critical of what they are reading and absorbing by checking their sources against this tool. While there are limitations of it (recognised by it’s maker in the FAQ), it is still the best of it’s kind that I have come across so far.
This short video is all you need to know how Vanessa Otero’s Media Bias Chart works:
Other than directing students to it and pleading them to use this tool when they conduct research (which usually means ‘Google’), how can we make effective use of it? Here are a few ideas:
How do different people feel about controversial issues? (Group work)
- Take a ‘controversial issue’ e.g. the building of HS2, fracking, coastal management, etc.
- Use the Media Bias Chart to obtain news articles about that issue from a range of sources. If you have 6 groups, then collect 6 articles across the horizontal axis (bias) e.g. one from ‘hyper-partisan left’, one from ‘skews left’, one from ‘balanced’, etc. It is up to you if you do the same in terms of factual information (y-axis)
- Print out each article and assign an article to each group (you can opt to tell them that the articles are different, sometimes it’s fun not too!)
- Engage in activities/discussions where students study, explore and analyse their article and feedback to the class.
How do different people feel about controversial issues? (‘Mirror’)
- A research or homework task – students look up an issue using a left-leaning or right-leaning source.
- Summarise their findings.
- Use the Media Bias Chart to find a source that is the mirror opposite (on the x-axis) to the source they first used. For example, if they used ‘Buzzfeed News’ first, they then use ‘The Wall Street Journal’
- Summarise their findings and then compare.
- This can be done in pairs or individually. Would make for a good flipped-homework task.
Is this source reliable?
- Show a video or article from a source on the Media Bias Chart that ranks poorly on the y-axis (fact reporting).
- Students to jot down the claims made by the source (if any)
- Provide another source which is equally bias but much higher on the y-axis
- Note what the differences are on how claims and facts are reported
- You can then compare with the more balanced media sources – again spotting the difference in reporting.
Bias/fact check (peer quality-control)
- Students perform a research task or write a report where they must cite their sources
- On completion of the work, their peers assess the quality of the sources by using the Media Bias Chart, where they practise using it to find out the level of bias and fact reporting.
- Students grade each other’s sources using the numbers on the chart, in whatever method you see fit.
As educations, we have a duty-of-care to the people we teach, especially if they are youngsters. Getting young-people to cross-check, think critically and verify is very important, as when they are older both habit and tribalism will set almost like concrete. Older people are less likely to engage even with a tool such as this, as this YouTube comment form the tool’s intro video suggests:
There is one simple no-hassle use of this tool: whenever you set a piece of research work, then your students are only allowed to use sources in the ‘green box’. Print a large copy to stick on your wall. Have them as laminated place-mats. Upload a copy/the link to your VLE or homework platform. Make it habit.
Another tool which is more extensive (a lot more international media sources and a searchable database) but in my opinion a little less aesthetic and user-friendly is Media Bias Fact Check. Definitely worth bookmarking both these tools!
Teaching critical thinking (or any skills) does NOT have to come at the cost of teaching content. And it shouldn’t
If you did get to read that excellent Pupil Progress article by Jo, she also echoes this statement. I feel very strongly about it. As head of department I resisted calls for a 3-year GCSE (because there was seem to be ‘too much to cover’). I was a subscriber to the ‘accelerated learning’ model while not leaving any student behind. Key Stage 3 fed into GCSE by having a foundation-based and engaging curriculum so students were ‘GCSE ready’. Here are a couple of examples I used with the PGCE students to demonstrate how skills can be used to teach the content. Both examples are based from the Geographical Association’s ‘Critical Thinking for Achievement’ training (more on that at the end).
Example 1: Teaching graphical skills, critical thinking skills and climate change
The graph below was displayed on the screen. Around the room were flip-chart paper and marker pens. Students were asked to circulate around the flip-chart paper and write a question or statement about the line-graph.
They could add to a comment or question. They were asked to circle a good question and place a ‘tick’ next to a comment they agreed with. This is called a ‘Flat Chat’ and is a way of opening up discussion without any verbal communication.
The next step is to formulate better questions. A tool to help students do this, is a ‘question generator grid’ – which many of you will already be familiar with.
A copy of the graph was given out to groups, along with an A3 copy of a question generator.
The grid is used to refine statements and questions about the line graph, e.g. “Where will
the line be by 2099?”, “Why does the line go up and down?”. Students should be made aware it is not necessary for every box to be filled in, nor that questions have to be answered now.
After this stage it is revealed that the line is a temperature graph. The title “Average Annual Temperature for the UK” is written on the graph, and the y-axis is labelled (average temp in °C) from 7°C to 12°C (each line is 1°C).
With this new information in mind, students can answer, probe or ask new questions on the question grid in a different colour pen e.g. “How do we know the temperature in the UK was this?” The use a different coloured pen is an aid to see the progression of their thinking, and the development of better questioning.
In just the space of about 15 minutes, we’ve worked on our questioning skills and began to explore a graph to do with climate change. We can now work on the graph some more (e.g. extrapolate the line to mimic climate modelling; read off figures to give examples of observational data etc). All the while we’re hitting the learning objective of how the UK’s climate is changing.
The full lesson that this is part of also uses some GIS. You can download the full lesson plan and resources as part of an educational pack here (see ‘Example 1’).
Example 2: A ‘silent debate’ about controversial issues: Exploiting the Antarctic
Each student is given a statement bank of ideas to exploit the Antarctic. In silence, they give each one some thought and then simply tick or cross whether they would approve or reject each proposal.
Each statement is written or printed at the top of a piece of paper and spread out around the room. Just like the ‘flat chat’ earlier, students circulate around the room visiting each statement and write a comment about why they would reject or accept the proposal. They are encouraged to respond to each other’s comments as well as writing their own opinion.
This method allows all students to give their points of view. Introspective students who don’t like classroom discussions have the chance to voice their opinion and respond to others.
When this is complete, the statement sheets are collected in and redistributed amongst the students after they have sat back down. Two things now take place:
- Has their opinions/choices been changed by a comment they have read? Why was that comment so convincing? (Modelling of ‘better answers’).
- What have they learnt about the issue that they weren’t aware of before? (Learning about the content).
Government-funded teacher CPD on Critical Thinking
Feedback from the evaluation form of my critical thinking session for the PGCE students suggests that it was very well received (rated either “very good” or “excellent”), with comments such as:
“Encouraging students to think out of the box and how important this is for their progress and understanding of a topic”
“It was useful to see resources and try them out in the session to see how they could be used in the classroom environment”
“Really felt like I learnt a lot without it feeling like a long session”
“Very useful, interactive and informative”
It was an opportunity for me to get ‘warmed up’ for a two-day CPD course that I am running on behalf of the Geographical Association for the East Anglia region. If you are a Geography or Science teacher, in either primary or secondary education anywhere in the UK, you should definitely check it out by visiting the GA’s website. The training is free for teachers from eligible schools; it’s estimated that something like this would cost around £300 per participant.
If for any reason you cannot engage with the training (please try!), then the GA’s critical thinking web-page is in itself a very useful resource full of ideas.
Are you a teacher in East Anglia? You can go straight to the info and registration page for my training sessions, which will be held at the University of East Anglia in April and June, by clicking here.
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