6. Students as Critical Thinkers

Citizens are constantly bombarded with information and asked to make decisions that have enormous consequences.  They are asked to understand how government works, how those we choose to govern are likely to do so, and how their needs overlap or conflict with the needs of others.  But more than just understanding these things, participants in a modern democracy are required to use this information to solve problems that impact millions of people; or at the very least evaluate the solutions proposed by multiple candidates for office.  Such an enormous task requires a great deal of critical thinking.

Sorting through massive quantities of information and determining that which is relevant, bringing together disparate sources of useful information, and applying that information to a problem is far easier said than done.  When asked about the ability of students to think abstractly and critically, Kevin Levin refers yet again to the idea of ‘thinking like a historian.’ He describes this idea in a number of contexts but at its core, he considers it a sort of constant state of curiosity.  “I’m not interested in creating copies of myself,” he says, “I want people who are willing to take risks in how they think.” Levin asks his history students to constantly make connections between the history they are studying and their own lives, in part hoping that this will prepare them to disparate accounts of events and seemingly unrelated information and apply it practically.  This approach, however, has its challenges. Chief among those challenges is the sheer quantity of information available to students and citizens.

Citizens and participants in a modern democracy are inundated with more easily available information than those of any other period.  The internet allows information to travel faster from the source to the consumer than ever before. Linda Carlton describes the problem as an unusual one wherein “today’s graduates are more knowledgeable about the world in general as they have greater instantaneous access to facts and the internet than any other in the history of man.”  She continues, however, to observe that “what they lack, sometimes, is the perspective of how events are tied together.”

As a history teacher and scholar of the American Civil War, a time period subject to decades of revisionist history, Levin deals with this paradox on a daily basis.  Levin articulates a frustration that “what we’re not doing with our students is teaching them how to properly search and assess the websites that they are getting back on their searches.”  He emphasizes the implications of a problem that impacts “first how we teach history, but also broader issues like citizenship.”

Paul Erb agrees that “students’ knowledge of facts is scanty, and their experience with argument is limited.”  But the problem goes far beyond that lack of an extensive library of facts from which to draw.  Levin and Carlton both argue that students are often not taught how to properly vet new information they encounter. “I think for most people if they want to know something they just google it;” Levin says, “they plug a couple words in maybe not even thinking about what words they’re using and whatever is at the top of that returns page is clicked on and taken for gospel.”

Though schools, like most bureaucracies, lag far behind the technology that breeds these problems, they are making an effort to catch up.  “With never-ending access to the internet, students today know bits and pieces coming into the classroom,” Carlton says, “and it is up to the teacher to ‘pull it all together’ and ‘facilitate a perspective’ to students.”  She continues to state that “learning should not be focused on what students should know but on what students should be able to do with their knowledge once they learn it.” As an administrator involved in curriculum development, Carlton spent years helping teachers deal with problems just like those presented by the internet.  “With increased technology,” she says, “comes a need for increased curriculum development.”

All three see the morass of poor information that floods students screens every day as an enormous challenge to teachers. But they all express optimism that some of those teachers are making headway by pushing their students to evaluate that information critically.  “There’s a lot more being done for teachers now,” says Levin, arguing that teachers are slowly being presented with more opportunities. He says (and Carlton agrees) that more schools are attempting to provide their teachers with resources that help them determine how to interpret and arrange information and how to pose the right questions” to their students.