How France’s efforts to teach critical thinking are missing a vital component
A New York Times article, “In France, school lessons ask: which Twitter post should you trust?” sits in on a French high school class and documents how some teachers are introducing content intended to help students spot fake news on social media, documenting an example in which students are asked to decide if a tweet projected onto a whiteboard is true or false.
Efforts to raise public awareness about the ease with which social networks spread fake news have been widely covered in articles, quizzes and surveys: a worthy task, given how social networks now allow anyone to generate news while at the same time reducing our skepticism if we see that news has been shared with or passed on by friends and family. Educating children to use their critical faculties is essential, and that process must begin, of course, in schools: today, no student should graduate without having received practical classes on topics that were previously studied, at best, only in journalism school.
So far, so good: students are being taught things based on adapting to the needs of living in today’s society. What’s more, it’s hardly surprising that this is happening in France, the first country to think about defending its elections against foreign interference and that is in the grip of violent protests largely coordinated through Facebook, which bears a good part of the responsibility due to a change in its algorithms. The problem, of course, is the conservatism of the French education system, which means these students are learning about such important topics in their classes passively, instead of being able to interact directly with the subject matter via their smartphones, thanks to a ban on these potentially powerful tools in French schools.
Content such as this is made for students to see, experience and touch directly on their own smartphones, allowing them to find their own examples on the networks they actually use, about content that matters to them, rather than some random tweet chosen by a teacher discussing topics that probably mean little to them. Critical thinking is best brought out by examining our own experiences, issues that affect us, that reflect our lives, not with four examples projected onto a classroom board.
Admittedly, using smartphones in the classroom is not straightforward: there’s no doubt of their potential as “weapons of mass distraction”… but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying: giving up on educating students on how to get the most out of a device they will use over the course of their lives is nothing less than an admission of failure before we’ve even started. Schools are constantly calling for bigger budgets to equip classrooms with computers, but now that virtually every student has one in their pocket, they are now forcing them to leave them at home because they don’t know how to integrate them into their teaching methods. This is a failure to even try innovation: deeply conservative and, above all, incoherent.
I congratulate the French education system for its attempt to raise awareness among students about the importance of critical thinking, but disagree with it for not doing so precisely where and how it most matters: on their own smartphones. As long as we are unable to overcome these irrational fears, we will continue to build outdated schools, blindly believing that previous methods were better.
(En español, aquí)