Since no single definition of critical thinking prevails (Dummett & Hughes, 2019: 2), discussions of the topic invariably begin with attempts to provide a definition. Lai (2011) offers an accessible summary of a range of possible meanings, but points out that, in educational contexts, its meaning is often rather vague and encompasses other concepts (such as higher order thinking skills) which also lack clarity. Paul Dummett and John Hughes (2019: 4) plump for ‘a mindset that involves thinking reflectively, rationally and reasonably’ – a definition which involves a vague noun (that could mean a fixed state of mind, a learned attitude, a disposition or a mood) and three highly subjective adverbs. I don’t think I could do any better. However, instead of looking for a definition, we can reach a sort of understanding by looking at examples of it. Dummett and Hughes’ book is extremely rich in practical examples, and the picture that emerges of critical thinking is complex and multifaceted.

As you might expect of a weasel word like ‘critical thinking’, there appears to be general agreement that it’s a ‘good thing’. Paul Dummett suggests that there are two common reasons for promoting the inclusion of critical thinking activities in the language classroom. The first of these is a desire to get students thinking for themselves. The second is the idea ‘that we live in an age of misinformation in which only the critically minded can avoid manipulation or slavish conformity’. Neither seems contentious at first glance, although he points out that ‘they tend to lead to a narrow application of critical thinking in ELT materials: that is to say, the analysis of texts and evaluation of the ideas expressed in them’. It’s the second of these rationales that I’d like to explore further.

Penny Ur (2020: 9) offers a more extended version of it:

The role of critical thinking in education has become more central in the 21st century, simply because there is far more information readily available to today’s students than there was in previous centuries (mainly, but not only, online), and it is vital for them to be able to deal with such input wisely. They need to be able to distinguish between what is important and what is trivial, between truth and lies, between fact and opinion, between logical argument and specious propaganda […] Without such skills and awareness of the need to exercise them, they are liable to find themselves victims of commercial or political interests, their thinking manipulated by persuasion disguised as information.

In the same edited collection Olja Milosevic (2020:18) echoes Ur’s argument:

Critical thinking becomes even more important as communication increasingly moves online. Students find an overwhelming amount of information and need to be taught how to evaluate its relevance, accuracy and quality. If teachers do not teach students how to go beyond surface meaning, students cannot be expected to practise it.

In the passages I’ve quoted, these writers are referring to one particular kind of critical thinking. The ability to critically evaluate the reliability, accuracy, etc of a text is generally considered to be a part of what is usually called ‘media information literacy’. In these times of fake news, so the argument goes, it is vital for students to develop (with their teachers’ help) the necessary skills to spot fake news when they see it. The most prototypical critical thinking activity in ELT classrooms is probably one in which students analyse some fake news, such as the website about the Pacific Tree Octopus (which is the basis of a lesson in Dudeney et al., 2013: 198 – 203).

Before considering media information literacy in more detail, it’s worth noting in passing that a rationale for critical thinking activities is no rationale at all if it only concerns one aspect of critical thinking, since it has applied attributes of a part (media information literacy) to a bigger whole (critical thinking).

There is no shortage of good (free) material available for dealing with fake news in the ELT classroom. Examples include work by James Taylor, Chia Suan Chong and Tyson Seburn. Material of this kind may result in lively, interesting, cognitively challenging, communicative and, therefore, useful lessons. But how likely is it that material of this kind will develop learners’ media information literacy and, by extension therefore, their critical thinking skills? How likely is it that teaching material of this kind will help people identify (and reject) fake news? Is it possible that material of this kind is valuable despite its rationale, rather than because of it? In the spirit of rational, reflective and reasonable thinking, these are questions that seem to be worth exploring.

ELT classes and fake news

James Taylor has suggested that the English language classroom is ‘the perfect venue for [critical thinking] skills to be developed’. Although academic English courses necessarily involve elements of critical thinking, I’m not so sure that media information literacy (and, specifically, the identification of fake news) can be adequately addressed in general English classes. There are so many areas, besides those that are specifically language-focussed, competing for space in language classes (think of all those other 21st century skills), that it is hard to see how sufficient time can be found for real development of this skill. It requires modelling, practice of the skill, feedback on the practice, and more practice (Mulnix, 2010): it needs time. Fake news activities in the language classroom would, of course, be of greater value if they were part of an integrated approach across the curriculum. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Information literacy skills

Training materials for media information literacy usually involve a number of stages. These include things like fact-checking and triangulation of different sources, consideration of web address, analysis of images, other items on the site, source citation and so on. The problem, however, is that news-fakers have become so good at what they do. The tree octopus site is very crude in comparison to what can be produced nowadays by people who have learnt to profit from the online economy of misinformation. Facebook employs an army of algorithmic and human fact-checkers, but still struggles. The bottom line is that background knowledge is needed (this is as true for media information literacy as it is for critical thinking more generally) (Willingham, 2007). With news, the scope of domain knowledge is so vast that it is extremely hard to transfer one’s ability to critically evaluate one particular piece of news to another. We are all fooled from time to time.

Media information literacy interventions: research on effectiveness

With the onset of COVID-19, the ability to identify fake news has become, more than ever, a matter of life and death. There is little question that this ability correlates strongly with analytic thinking (see, for example, Stanley et al., 2020). What is much less clear is how we can go about promoting analytic thinking. Analytic thinking comes in different varieties, and another hot-off-the-press research study into susceptibility to COVID-19 fake news (Roozenbeek et al., 2020) has found that the ability to spot fake news may correlate more strongly with numerical literacy than with reasoning ability. In fact, the research team found that a lack of numerical literacy was the most consistent predictor of susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19. Perhaps we are attempting to develop the wrong kind of analytic thinking?

In educational contexts, attempts to promote media information literacy typically seek to develop reasoning abilities, and the evidence for their effectiveness is mixed. First of all, it needs to be said that ‘little large-scale evidence exists on the effectiveness of promoting digital media literacy as a response to online misinformation’ (Guess et al., 2020). An early meta-analysis (Jeong et al., 2012) found that such interventions had a positive effect, when the interventions were long (not one-off), but impacted more on students’ knowledge than they did on their behaviour. More recently, Huguet et al (2019) were unable to draw ‘definitive conclusions from past research, such as what kinds of media literacy practices work and under what conditions’. And this year, a study by Guess et al (2020) did not generate sufficient evidence ‘to conclude that the [media information literacy] intervention changed real-world consumption of false news’. I am unaware of any robust research in this area in the context of ELT.

It’s all rather disappointing. Why are we not better at it? After all, teachers of media studies have been exploring pathways for many years now. One possible answer is this: Media information literacy, like critical thinking more generally, is a skill that is acquirable, but it can only be acquired if there is a disposition to do so. The ability to think critically and the disposition to do so are separate entities (Facione, 2000). Training learners to be more critical in their approach to media information may be so much pissing in the wind if the disposition to be sceptical is not there. Shaping dispositions is a much harder task than training skills.

Both of the research studies into susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation that I referred to earlier in this section underscore the significance of dispositions to analytic thinking. Roozenbeek et al (2020) found, in line with much previous research (for example, Jost et al. 2018), that political conservatism is associated with a slightly higher susceptibility to misinformation. Political views (on either side of the political spectrum) rarely change as a result of exposure to science or reasoned thinking. They also found that ‘self-identifying as a member of a minority predicts susceptibility to misinformation about the virus in all countries surveyed’ (except, interestingly, in the UK). Again, when issues of identity are at stake, emotional responses tend to trump rational ones.

Rational, reflective and reasonable thinking about media information literacy leads to an uncomfortable red-pill rabbit-hole. This is how Bulger and Davidson (2018) put it:

The extent to which media literacy can combat the problematic news environment is an open question. Is denying the existence of climate change a media literacy problem? Is believing that a presidential candidate was running a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop a media literacy problem? Can media literacy combat the intentionally opaque systems of serving news on social media platforms? Or intentional campaigns of disinformation?

Teachers and fake news

The assumption that the critical thinking skills of young people can be developed through the intervention of their teachers is rarely problematized. It should be. A recent study of Spanish pre-service teachers (Fuertes-Prieto et al., 2020) showed that their ‘level of belief in pseudoscientific issues is comparable, or even higher in some cases to those of the general population’. There is no reason to believe that this changes after they have qualified. Teachers are probably no more likely to change their beliefs when presented with empirical evidence (Menz et al., 2020) than people from any other profession. Research has tended to focus on teachers’ lack of critical thinking in areas related to their work, but, things may be no different in the wider world. It is estimated that over a quarter of teachers in the US voted for the world’s greatest peddler of fake news in the 2016 presidential election.

It is also interesting to note that the sharing of fake news on social media is much more widespread among older people (including US teachers who have an average age of 42.4) than those under 30 (Bouygues, 2019).

Institutional contexts and fake news

Cory Doctorow has suggested that the fake news problem is not a problem of identifying what is true and what is fake, but a problem ‘about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology’. In a post-modernist world of ‘Truth Decay’ (Kavanagh & Rich, 2018), where there is ‘a blurring of the line between opinion and fact’, epistemological authority is a rare commodity. Medicine, social sciences and applied linguistics are all currently experiencing a ‘replication crisis’ (Ioannidis, 2005) and we had a British education minister saying that ‘people of this country have had enough of experts’.

News reporting has always relied to some extent on trust in the reliability of the news source. The BBC or CNN might attempt to present themselves as more objective than, say, Fox News or InfoWars, but trust in all news outlets has collapsed globally in recent years. As Michael Shudson has written in the Columbia Journalism Review, ‘all news outlets write from a set of values, not simply from a disinterested effort at truth’. If a particular news channel manifestly shares different values from your own, it is easy to reject the veracity of the news it reports. Believers in COVID conspiracy theories often hold their views precisely because of their rejection of the epistemological authority of mainstream news and the WHO or governments who support lockdown measures.

The training of media information literacy in schools is difficult because, for many people in the US (and elsewhere), education is not dissimilar to mainstream media. They ‘are seen as the enemy — two institutions who are trying to have power over how people think. Two institutions that are trying to assert authority over epistemology’ (boyd, 2018). Schools have always been characterized by imbalances in power (between students and teachers / administrators), and this power dynamic is not conducive to open-minded enquiry. Children are often more aware of the power of their teachers than they are accepting of their epistemological authority. They are enjoined to be critical thinkers, but only about certain things and only up to a certain point. One way for children to redress the power imbalance is to reject the epistemological authority of their teachers. I think this may explain why a group of young children I observed recently coming out of a lesson devoted to environmental issues found such pleasure in joking about Greta ‘Thunfisch’.

Power relationships in schools are reflected and enacted in the interaction patterns between teachers and students. The most common of these is ‘initiation-response-feedback (IRF)’ and it is unlikely that this is particularly conducive to rational, reflective and reasonable thinking. At the same time, as Richard Paul, one of the early advocates of critical thinking in schools, noted, much learning activity is characterised by lower order thinking skills, especially memorization (Paul, 1992: 22). With this kind of backdrop, training in media information literacy is more likely to be effective if it goes beyond the inclusion of a few ‘fake news’ exercises: a transformation in the way that the teaching is done will also be needed. Benesch (1999) describes this as a more ‘dialogic’ approach and there is some evidence that a more dialogic approach can have a positive impact on students’ dispositions (e.g. Hajhosseiny, 2012).

I think that David Buckingham (2019a) captures the educational problem very neatly:

There’s a danger here of assuming that we are dealing with a rational process – or at least one that can, by some pedagogical means, be made rational. But from an educational perspective, we surely have to begin with the question of why people might believe apparently ‘fake’ news in the first place. Where we decide to place our trust is as much to do with fantasy, emotion and desire, as with rational calculation. All of us are inclined to believe what we want to believe.

Fake news: a problem or a symptom of a problem?

There has always been fake news. The big problem now is ‘the speed and ease of its dissemination, and it exists primarily because today’s digital capitalism makes it extremely profitable – look at Google and Facebook – to produce and circulate false but click-worthy narratives’ (Morosov, 2017). Fake news taps into and amplifies broader tendencies and divides in society: the problem is not straightforward and is unlikely to be easy to eradicate (Buckingham, 2019a: 3).

There is increasing discussion of media regulation and the recent banning by Facebook of Holocaust denial and QAnon is a recognition that some regulation cannot now be avoided. But strict regulations would threaten the ‘basic business model, and the enormous profitability’ of social media companies (Buckingham, 2009b) and there are real practical and ethical problems in working out exactly how regulation would happen. Governments do not know what to do.

Lacking any obvious alternative, media information literacy is often seen as the solution: can’t we ‘fact check and moderate our way out of this conundrum’ (boyd, 2018)? danah boyd’s stark response is, no, this will fail. It’s an inadequate solution to an oversimplified problem (Buckingham, 2019a).

Along with boyd and Buckingham, I’m not trying to argue that we drop media information literacy activities from educational (including ELT) programmes. Quite the opposite. But if we want our students to think reflectively, rationally and reasonably, I think we will need to start by doing the same.

References

Benesch, S. (1999). Thinking critically, thinking dialogically. TESOL Quarterly, 33: pp. 573 – 580

Bouygues, H. L. (2019). Fighting Fake News: Lessons From The Information Wars. Reboot Foundation https://reboot-foundation.org/fighting-fake-news/

boyd, d. (2018). You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You? Data and Society: Points https://points.datasociety.net/you-think-you-want-media-literacy-do-you-7cad6af18ec2

Buckingham, D. (2019a). Teaching Media in a ‘Post-Truth’ Age: Fake News, Media Bias and the Challenge for Media Literacy Education. Cultura y Educación 31(2): pp. 1-19

Buckingham, D. (2019b). Rethinking digital literacy: Media education in the age of digital capitalism. https://ddbuckingham.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/media-education-in-digital-capitalism.pdf

Bulger, M. & Davidson, P. (2018). The Promises, Challenges and Futures of Media Literacy. Data and Society. https://datasociety.net/pubs/oh/DataAndSociety_Media_Literacy_2018.pdf

Doctorow, C. (2017). Three kinds of propaganda, and what to do about them. boingboing 25th February 2017, https://boingboing.net/2017/02/25/counternarratives-not-fact-che.html

Dudeney, G., Hockly, N. & Pegrum, M. (2013). Digital Literacies. Harlow: Pearson Education

Dummett, P. & Hughes, J. (2019). Critical Thinking in ELT. Boston: National Geographic Learning

Facione, P. A. (2000). The disposition toward critical thinking: Its character, measurement, and relation to critical thinking skill. Informal Logic, 20(1), 61–84.

Fuertes-Prieto, M.Á., Andrés-Sánchez, S., Corrochano-Fernández, D. et al. (2020). Pre-service Teachers’ False Beliefs in Superstitions and Pseudosciences in Relation to Science and Technology. Science & Education 29, 1235–1254 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00140-8

Guess, A. M., Lerner, M., Lyons, B., Montgomery, J. M., Nyhan, N., Reifler, J. & Sircar, N. (2020). A digital media literacy intervention increases discernment between mainstream and false news in the United States and India. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jul 2020, 117 (27) 15536-15545; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1920498117

Hajhosseiny, M. (2012). The Effect of Dialogic Teaching on Students’ Critical Thinking Disposition. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 69: pp. 1358 – 1368

Huguet, A., Kavanagh, J., Baker, G. & Blumenthal, M. S. (2019). Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay. RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR3000/RR3050/RAND_RR3050.pdf

Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2005). Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Medicine 2 (8): e124. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

Jeong, S. H., Cho, H., & Hwang, Y. (2012). Media literacy interventions: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Communication, 62, pp. 454–472

Jones-Jang, S. M., Mortensen, T. & Liu, J. (2019). Does media literacy help identification of fake news? Information literacy helps, but other literacies don’t. American Behavioral Scientist, pp. 1 – 18, doi:10.1177/0002764219869406

Jost, J. T., van der Linden, S., Panagopoulos, C. & Hardin, C. D. (2018). Ideological asymmetries in conformity, desire for shared reality, and the spread of misinformation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23: pp/ 77-83. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.01.003

Kavanagh, J. & Rich, M. D. (2018). Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html

Lai, E.R. 2011. Critical Thinking: A Literature Review. Pearson. http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/CriticalThinkingReviewFINAL.pdf

Menz, C., Spinath, B. & Seifried, E. (2020). Misconceptions die hard: prevalence and reduction of wrong beliefs in topics from educational psychology among preservice teachers. European Journal of Psychology of Education https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-020-00474-5

Milosevic, O. (2020). Promoting critical thinking in the EFL classroom. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp.17 – 22

Morozov, E. (2017). Moral panic over fake news hides the real enemy – the digital giants. The Guardian, 8 January 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/08/blaming-fake-news-not-the-answer-democracy-crisis

Mulnix, J.W. 2010. ‘Thinking critically about critical thinking’ Educational Philosophy and Theory, 2010

Paul, R. W. (1992). Critical thinking: What, why, and how? New Directions for Community Colleges, 77: pp. 3–24.

Roozenbeek, J., Schneider, C.R., Dryhurst, S., Kerr, J., Freeman, A. L. J., Recchia, G., van der Bles, A. M. & and van der Linden, S. (2020). Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the world. Royal Society Open Science, 7 (10) https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.201199

Stanley, M., Barr, N., Peters, K. & Seli, P. (2020). Analytic-thinking predicts hoax beliefs and helping behaviors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. PsyArxiv Preprints doi:10.31234/osf.io/m3vt

Ur, P. (2020). Critical Thinking. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp.9 – 16

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? American Educator Summer 2007: pp. 8 – 19

Comments
  1. Thomas Ewens says:

    Thank you for this, Philip. There is a lot here to think about here and I’m going to take some time to read some of the other pieces you’ve cited.

    It’s very easy to fall into the trap of believing fake news, isn’t it? It can happen to almost anyone. Indeed, a teacher and author who you mention in your piece shared unfounded conspiracy theories about the Skripal poisonings on Facebook, a few years ago.

    Another anecdotal story, I know of people who support Trump who have articles published in double-blind peer-reviewed academic journals. They obviously have highly developed critical thinking skills, so something else must be going on, there.

    It might be that what is traditionally considered in ELT to be ‘critical thinking’ is too narrow a definition. I don’t have any real evidence for this, but it’s just a theory I have. What do you think to this?

  2. […] blog post recently from Philip Kerr on critical thinking. He mentioned how ‘critical thinking’ tends ti have a […]

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