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March 17, 2021

Educating Students to Think Intensively and Critically

It’s Sunday, February 12, 2017 and the top headline of The Huffington Post reads, “MILLER CHILLER: SUNDAY CIRCUIT WHIFF!” Now, I’m an educated person who reads the news daily, and in addition to feeling alarmed (which I imagine is the author’s intent), I’m also confused. So I click into the article to find a revised title: “Trump Adviser Stephen Miller Disastrously Tries to Defend Trump.” Miller Chiller… Circuit Whiff!… Disastrously tries… hmmm. I think I know where this article is going.

I wonder what the “other side” of the aisle has front and center for us today? With a quick search, I find the following in large print featured on Fox News: “‘ENORMOUS EVIDENCE’: Trump advisor says there is proof of voter fraud in U.S., while critics call for data.” I wonder which part of this headline will resonate most with readers: the enlarged, emphasized opening crying, “ENORMOUS EVIDENCE,” or the little opposing part at the end about a potential lack of sufficient data to support Trump’s claim?

As an educator in the Oakland Unified School District, I immediately wonder what meaning the high school students I serve would make of the headlines above. What background knowledge do they have, both on the subject matter and on the two publications? What predictions might they make about each article just by reading the titles? What similarities might they notice? What differences would they identify? Perhaps most importantly, what do I understand about the significance of these competing headlines that our students might not immediately grasp?

In the wake of the recent presidential campaign and election, we’re seeing every day how the distribution and consumption of information in our society affects individuals, communities, national unity, politics, public policy — ultimately, how it affects the functioning of our democracy. The responsibility that we have as educators to prepare our students to become critical thinkers and informed civic actors is increasingly apparent. The opportunity we have to engage students in the value and purpose of having these skills is ripe and urgent.

As a high school English teacher, I developed curriculum focused on teaching students how to analyze the significance of textual evidence, assess the credibility of various sources, and synthesize corroborating and contradictory evidence in support of a compelling argument. You can imagine how sexy all of that sounds to sixteen-year-olds!

To engage them, I find we have to do two things:

  • Tap into the topics students care about
  • Scaffold the lessons effectively so students can focus on mastering one skill before the next

For the former, don’t be afraid to have fun with it. Whether I was asking my students to assess the credibility of informational sources about Tupac’s immortality or to synthesize evidence from various sources to determine the truthfulness of a social rumor they’d heard that day, they were engaged in the application of critical thought. The use of entertaining and non-threatening topics like these prepares students to apply higher order skills to more rigorous academic content. This, in conjunction with effective scaffolding and supportive learning tools, actually makes it harder for students to avoid the act of thinking critically, try as they might. In the curriculum above, you’ll find instructional practices that include the use of analytical sentence frames, the 6Ws of source credibility, credibility “trust-o-meters,” writing outlines, synthesis exercises, and more.

Assuming I’ve already developed some of the foundational interest and skills as discussed above, a lesson plan forms in my mind…

I see a jigsaw of sorts with two groups: one to become the expert on Fox News and the other on The Huffington Post. From the headlines alone, they should be able to assess the credibility of each informational source, citing evidence in the author’s diction, syntax, punctuation, and stylistic choices. Then, members of each group team up with members from the other to share. The objective is to discuss and analyze similarities and differences between the headlines, in terms of argument, style, and impact. I see Venn diagrams filled with brilliant observations backed by evidence. Lastly, what if students were tasked with rewriting the articles’ titles to be free of bias and subjectivity? What would they change and why?

Of course, there are many different directions we could take this lesson, just as there are a variety of issues and resources related to current events we could focus on with our students. Having choices of this kind is not new to teaching. What feels new is the volume of content that’s available with a click of a key and, sadly, a weakened sense of responsibility among those who distribute the content to remain objective and unbiased.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The role of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” If we cannot rely on those who have the public’s eyes and ears to model this for our students, we must empower our students to elevate their voices and demand better of us all.


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