Making healthy skepticism happen in teaching and learning
In my research, I study the literacy practices of individuals in online and hybrid spaces. What this means is that I’m interested in the ways in which you read, write, and communicate online. One of the big challenges that I’ve investigated over the years is the ability of individuals to critically evaluate online information.
Students are typically directed to utilize a checklist approach as the evaluate online information. This means that students carry a list of questions to consider as they examine digital content online. You can find a good overview of possible strategies and tools here from Kathy Schrock. My problem with the checklist approach is that students rarely memorize or internalize these checklists. Students also do not carry these strategies over to their daily practices. Students often know the strategies, however, when they’re questioned they indicate that they don’t critical examine or inspect this information even though they know they should.
My early research in the area suggests that this boils down to evaluations of two factors, credibility and relevance. Educators should work with students to develop a criteria for critical evaluation of online information and identify opportunities to assess this learning. What we need to do is develop not only knowledge and awareness of this content, we need to develop habits or dispositions. A disposition is an attitude or aptitude. It is a way of being. It means that we make this a normal part of your daily process…not something you engage for specific types of reading in different spaces.
The habit or disposition that I believe is necessary is to empower our students to engage in healthy skepticism as they consume content and learn. I believe students from Pre-K up through higher ed should be encouraged to act as healthy skeptics of all information, whether it is online or presented through traditional means. By understanding developing and scaffolding this healthy skepticism in our classrooms, we can help students prepare to evaluate and possibly solve problems they’ll see in and out of the classroom.
What is healthy skepticism?
Healthy skepticism is an easy concept to understand since we see it and feel it often in our lives. You may have some questions if you’re received that email indicating that a long lost relative in Nigeria has passed and left you a large inheritance. You may have doubt when an advertisement claims to be the “wonder cure” for that recent malady that you think you have. You most likely have suspicions when someone knocks on your door at 3:00 in the afternoon on the weekend and wants to sell you solar panels for your house. In all of these instances, you’re employing a questioning attitude that casts doubt on information or claims presented.
Healthy skepticism means that you want to think critically as you engage with new content, ideas, or perspectives. This draws from critical literacy philosophies and pedagogies that encourages learners to actively analyze texts to look for underlying messages. When you view “texts” as being a very broad concept, this could apply to websites, newspapers, media content, a textbook, or a lecture from a professor. In a certain sense, you doubt everything as you think critically about everything, not just things you don’t agree with. You even think critically about your own knowledge, bias, and perspectives.
Healthy skepticism also means that you “think like a scientist.” A scientist thinks empirically about a problem, not ideologically. Empirical evidence is information that verifies truth. Truth is data that corresponds with reality and is gathered through observation or experimentation. Ideology is based on beliefs, worldviews, and ontology. Put simply, think about the data you’re using as you examine a problem or statement. You can test or check a fact, whereas a belief or opinion cannot be tested.
Make it happen
There are multiple ways to make this happen in your classroom. The first of these is to embed critical literacy philosophies in instruction. Let your students know it is acceptable and perhaps expected that they will question everything and doubt all as they learn in your classroom. Provide a safe space for them to discuss texts, society, truth, and power all throughout the year.
Secondly, develop critical thinking skills by having your students work with ill-formed, illogical problems that they don’t have all of the information they’ll need. Life is full of wicked problems that are not easily solved, or there is no real solution for them. These are problems that are definitely worth solving, yet we often ignore them in our classrooms. We typically give students problems that have all of the information they need, there is one “right” answer, and it can be easily solved without much frustration. Challenge your students by adding in these elements to your class. Review this TedEd lesson for more guidance.
Finally, have students collaborate in the learning experience. This allows students to take ownership of learning, while thinking critically about the issues. Students are able to think about their own bias and perspective and that of their peers. When students collaborate together they learn how to communicate with others effectively, work as a team, practice self-discipline, and improve social and interpersonal skills. Through collaboration, students are able to have a better understanding of what they are learning and improve critical thinking skills.
Maintaining a skeptical attitude
Of course, once you start building the culture in your classroom, you can’t stop there. You’ll want to provide opportunities to build toward making these behaviors and practices automatic in all facets of learning in and out of the classroom. Acting as a health skeptic means that students will think critically, and doubt or question everything long after they’ve left your classroom.
To continue to build this thinking, design thinking provides a powerful opportunity to embed this in instruction. Design thinking is an approach to learning that focuses on developing the creative confidence of students. Design thinking can be defined as “a team-based innovation method [that] helps deal with complex design problems by sustaining in-depth learning processes on problem perception and diverse solution paths.” Design thinking holds that students need to be able to consider, design, and prototype solutions to complex problems. The design thinking process remains long after the lesson ends as students recreate the steps and processes as they encounter complex problems. For more information, check out this crash course from the Stanford dSchool.
I also recommend embedding computational thinking and participation in teaching and learning. Coding and programming are hot topics in our schools today. Some of the challenge in making this happen is that the capacity to code is often conceived as a trait as opposed to a craft that can be learned and honed. Moving to a focus on computational thinking and participation suggests that the focus should not be on building future coders and programmers. Instead we should focus on having our students think algorithmically. Computational thinking is an iterative process that focuses on problem solving through abstraction, automation, and analysis. Computational participation extends this by bring social learning and connections into the learning and creation environment. This framing of work process allows students and educators to develop problem solving skills in and out of the classroom. For more information, visit this training from Google.
Not all knowledge is impossible
Encouraging our students to evaluate, problematize, and question all information is one possible way to address the challenges that exist as they read and learn online. Developing these skillsets and dispositions may also help them as they encounter wicked problems in and out of the classroom. This requires that educators focus on their philosophical stance in the classroom, and make the rationale for these pedagogies clear to students.
The challenge is that some of the ultimate effects of this instruction may never be seen by the classroom teacher. As a student critically evaluates online information, they often make these split second decisions in the privacy that exists between the screen and their eyes. Students will also encounter ill formed, challenging problems as they learn tough lessons in and out of school. These strategies that you build with them may provide them with the toolset they’ll need to succeed or survive in those instances. Once again, this is informed by philosophies of the educator and their rationale for teaching.
Building this disposition of healthy skepticism in learners helps them as they prepare for problem solving in future environments. It also builds the skills that impact work process and product in our current classrooms. Most importantly, it has the potential to empower the student as they think critically about the world around them. As noted by Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”