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The importance of developing critical thinking

In the wake of the controversy over the influence of fake or false news on the outcome of the recent US presidential election, The Wall Street Journal identifies one of the main problems of education today through a study by Stanford University (pdf) that shows how most young people are unable to clearly differentiate false from true news, and are not even able to recognize sponsored content, even when it is labeled as such.

One of the great properties of the internet is, undoubtedly, that it facilitates access to information. It is precisely for this reason that critical thinking and judgment are increasingly important, constituting a fundamental part of our digital competence in all aspects of life.

But development of critical thinking is notoriously absent in our educational models. Understanding what the internet can give us, to be able to ascribe credibility according to the source or the characteristics of the information we access, and to possess the skepticism to understand that all conclusions demand evidence, or to be able to fact check, are skills that previously belonged to the field of journalism and in which society, justifiably or not, placed its trust, but that are now increasingly essential for us all to possess or develop.

The results of the Stanford study are disheartening at all levels: any hopes that younger people were minimally more savvy and would not accept the first result of a search or share information without checking it have been shown to be without basis, and shows, as I have already said on numerous occasions, that the so-called digital natives are a figment of our imagination.

It seems that young people are even more trusting and easier to deceive than their parents, who were supposed to educate them in the importance of critical thinking. Schools, for their part, have avoided all responsibility on this issue, as might be expected from institutions that, with few honorable exceptions, have chosen to shield themselves from the advance of technology, banning children from putting their smartphones to good use, in case they are distracted by them in the classroom. In the internet age, we continue to educate children on the basis of the erroneous concept that truth is to be found only in books, instead of taking the opportunity to develop skepticism and critical thinking about the most important tool for accessing information we have ever developed.

Ours is now a society that produces idiots who believe everything they read on the internet, who are incapable of suspecting or thinking that an article is sponsored content or represents certain interests, and who believe sensational headlines that would not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Asking social networks to try to develop algorithmic metrics to assess the credibility of news is not a bad idea, but in reality, the real problem is the inability of many of us to adapt to the availability en masse of information on the internet and to manage it properly.

When you think about education, think about the importance of that variable. Think of the need to educate your children in the context in which they will live, one of hyper-abundance in which access to information must respond to patterns of best practice. Think about how to explain to them which sites are good and which are bad, and how to differentiate fake news from satire or parody or humor, how to contrast information, why it is necessary to do so before sharing something, and how to acquire the discipline of information management so as to prevent them from passing on false, sensational or biased news.

The internet, with its hyper-abundance of information, could be a fundamental tool in developing our critical faculties: all we have to do is teach children that information is no longer only to be found in textbooks, but that it is out there, and then to correct them according to the type of information they decide to use, through trial and error, generating methodologies in the process. Critical thinking must be a fundamental element in our children’s education if we do not want to end up with a society of idiots.

(En español, aquí)