Teaching Critical Thinking in the Age of BS, a guest post by media literacy educator Deborah Pardes


#FactsMatter. Yes, they still do. But what matters more in this dystopian period in which we find ourselves is the ability to critically think. Finely-tuned minds have more muscle to rip through “alternative facts.”  It’s not a walk in the park – it’s a slug through mud. But as educators, it’s our job to pull each other along in support and in partnership.

I’m not teaching in schools K-12 on a regular basis. I find myself engaged directly with the public in what I call “family literacy” engagements.  It’s clear that critical thinking is not just a buzzword used to bring validity to disruptive teaching methodologies.  It’s a thing. It’s a hard-wired skill that is useful at all stages of life, in all contexts. In this discussion, critical thinking is the antidote to not thinking at all. It’s the lifeline that may save millions of people from becoming statistics in polls that measure who got fooled by whom and what advertising agency, political party or news outlet gets the credit for its brilliant ability to “frame” things for the lowest common denominator.

Before we can critically think, it’s critical that we know who we are – and what makes us tick. From this self-awareness comes an understanding of how confirmational bias works. So to bring this down to the street level – context is everything.  When I have a stuffed nose – what makes me tick is my need to un-stuff it.  When I bump into a piece of media that’s shouting about cold medicine – I will sit up at attention because I’m in the “help me” zone – I’m in pain – I need help.  My critical thinking is bypassed by my desire to believe in a solution. I’m pulling out my wallet. I’m buying it.

This scenario can be mapped onto anything – coal miners hearing that coal is finally coming back, alcoholics hearing that wine is good for the skin, vegans hearing that all meat causes cancer, etc.  Media will always and forever serve up healthy portions of both solid facts and constructed truths. That machine is well oiled.  It’s been running since the Guttenberg Press drank its first bottle of ink. As educators, we’re not going to stop misleading media from barking at us. We are going to encourage the life-long study of counting to 10, thinking critically during that time, employing basic media literacy tools, and doing the best we can at protecting ourselves from bullshit.

Here’s a great “Who Are You?” exercise for all age groups. It does a few things at once:

  • It helps people drill down to the 5 nouns that describe how they identify themselves as they unconsciously move through time and space. (Notice I said nouns, not adjectives.) Now they know who they are.
  • It prompts the discussion of the cost of seeing life only through one lens. This results in narrow-mindedness, more echo chambers, silos, etc.
  • It invites a 101 talk about the technology of algorithms, which track and map online behaviors to strengthen as oppose to challenge extreme bias
  • It allows for people to exchange identities as a mind-expanding practice.

Steps for “Who Are You?”:

  1. Each student gets an index card
  2. In elbow partners, one student asks the other “who are you?” 5 times.
  3. 5 nouns are written down (sister, fisherwoman, Christian, queer, artist, etc.)
  4. Partners switch to ask the other 5 times with the same process
  5. Index cards are handed to instructor
  6. This stack of cards is described by the instructor as the DNA on which marketers feed. Explain how online behavior –every click, snap and swipe is recorded and is informed by the nouns by which we describe ourselves. We read and respond to news, ads, and entertainment based on these nouns. We shop based on these nouns. Know that this awareness is now your POWER.  Know that you limit your world-view if you ONLY look at life in terms of these 5 nouns. Know that you give away a blueprint about yourselves if you are consistently living inside the constraints of your own bias.  This awareness is part of our commitment to critically think about both our smallest and biggest behaviors around consuming and sharing media.
  7. Pass back the index cards, making sure the students do NOT get their own index card back.
  8. Instruct them to take 15 minutes  to look at life “as if you are defined by these 5 nouns. Interact with all MEDIA as this persona. Surf online with this persona guiding all your decisions.” (This will flummox the algorithm in a good way)
  9. Give them index cards to take home to do this same exercise with their families to extend the conversation.
  10. Give credit: This specific process was architected by Arresting Knowledge

Understanding our own personal bias is a crucial first step in the more extended process of critical thinking about media. We are what we believe. We believe based on who we are.  News and information will always be hurled our way at an alarming rate. It’s powerful to know that there are tools to control and filter media as in approaches our most sacred space – influencing how we spend our time, how we spend our money, and how we cast our votes.

Deborah Pardes is the founder of Artists for Literacy. Her corporate, artistic and academic work focus on leveraging the power of artful communications to break down silos that limit our potential. Her portfolio of projects can be seen at DeborahPardes.com

Arresting Knowledge is a community engagement tour designed to spark and document a national conversation about media (news, social, entertainment, advertising) and its impact on our personal choices. These 90-minute live broadcast events will teach media literacy skills in the context of real-world examples.  We are a collaborative project, celebrating the contributions of dozens of teachers, artists and journalists. Without support and funding, this project will not thrive. Please join us. ArrestingKnowledge.com

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