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Preparing Our Future – The Need for Critical Thinking

thinkThere has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools.  Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”.  Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology.  Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.

In order to achieve this it means that we need to get beyond teaching the “tools” and start teaching the “skills” that will make all the difference for the workforce of the future. In particular it requires that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings to us. It is no longer  just a case of “feeding” them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool.

Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars it provides an powerful framework for our internet age.

findEvery single day, we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and every single day the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially.  These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in a billion haystacks.

Critical thinking is about “reflective” rather than “routine” thought, it’s the process of “active, persistent and careful consideration” of the credibility and conclusions of supposed knowledge or information.

Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it.  Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Fortunately for us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it.

From an early age, we need to ensure that children using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:

Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.

Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.

Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.

Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount. 

Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.

(Note: More detail on each of these areas, as well as lesson ideas for different ages of students can be found in the “Critical Thinking” white paper we published in 2010)

So, as we prepare to wind down this educational year and pause over the summer to think about the role of ICT in the new school year in September, please, let’s make sure we keep a firm focus on ensuring that as well as being brilliant at coding, our future citizens (and workforce) are equipped with all the necessary skills to make the very best of all that technology will have to offer them.

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