The problem of not reading

Critical thinking is widely considered to be a core educational goal and is rightly appreciated for its central educational importance. There are different ways of viewing criticality, from a narrow reckoning of it as logical, syllogistic thinking to a more inclusive appreciation of academic and intellectual honesty, deep listening and reflection rather than immediate hard-nosed scepticism. The American academic and father of philosophy for children, Matthew Lippman, spoke of “caring thinking” as one of the dispositional attributes of the critical thinker as he had noticed that a narrow definition based on argumentation could actually promote fairly unpleasant ways of being and interacting with others and it was necessary to place criticality within a broader perspective of humane and kind behaviour.

It is not without irony that in a world where scientific inquiry has never been more advanced, access to information and knowledge more democratised and literacy rates more widespread, there seems to be a dearth, and an increasing one at that, of critical thinking. With the recent surge of artificial intelligence, the need to actively and deliberately teach students to navigate information with discernment has become especially important.

However, it is only partly ironic: the more readily available information is and the easier it is to generate information online without checks and balances (such as publishing houses, review and vetting systems or similar checks and balances that filter what is produced on a mass scale), the easier it is to publish a whole range of personal opinions from speculation and conjecture to unsubstantiated theory to tenuous if not spurious claims to downright garbage, nonsense and, as we approach the far end of the spectrum, misinformation and lies. More recently we have seen false information generated by artificial intelligence  affect the stock exchange. 

There are obvious and blatant examples of postulates, policies and widely held opinions that are erroneous, sometimes dangerously so. These vary from history textbooks denying the existence of countries because of national propaganda, works of literature being censored or rewritten to make them more palatable and internet-spawned  mumbo-jumbo on conspiracy theories, aliens, secret “systems” and so on.

The question, quite clearly, is how to promote and nurture critical thinking. As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, this year I will take some time with my students to unpack the essential vocabulary of knowledge: words like certainty, evidence, truth, explanation, interpretation,  objectivity, perspective, culture, power, responsibility and values. In the lower years, my colleagues will be having Philosophy for Children discussions with students so as to habituate them to make points in a  careful, responsible and measured fashion.    

However, I find that a more subtle, pernicious and pervasive attack on critical thinking is very simply a lack of reading. I don’t mean by this an inability to read, but a lack of effort to do so: not reading reports but having an opinion on them, referring to unread studies, piggy-backing on second, third or fourth hand condensations of original material that seems to have been digested by few if any people at all. 

Recently UNESCO published its annual Global Education Monitoring Report . It is a hefty 418 page document that explains, quite rightly, how complex the dilemma of technology in education is. In discussing the effect of devices on concentration, the report points out that

 Student use of devices beyond a moderate threshold may have a negative impact on academic performance. The use of smartphones and computers disrupts classroom and home learning activity. A meta-analysis of research on the relationship between student mobile phone use and educational outcomes covering students from pre-primary to higher education in 14 countries found a small negative effect, which was larger at the university level. (p.81)

The report then goes on to explain, with some nuance, that

Banning technology from schools can be legitimate if technology integration does not improve learning or if it worsens student well-being. Yet, working with technology in schools, and the accompanying risks, may require something more than banning. First, policies should be clear on what is and is not permitted in schools. Students cannot be punished if there is no clarity or transparency on their required behaviour. Decisions in these areas need conversations supported by sound evidence and involve all those with a stake in students’ learning. Second, there should be clarity on the role these new technologies play in learning and on their responsible use by and within schools. Third, students need to learn the risks and opportunities that come with technology, develop critical skills, and understand to live with and without technology. Shielding students from new and innovative technology can put them at a disadvantage. It is important to look at these issues with an eye on the future and be ready to adjust and adapt as the world changes. (p. 157)

Importantly, the report describes how smartphones were a lifeline to the curriculum and learning during Covid, even if evidence of the benefits is “mixed” (p. 33). 

However, only days after the report was issued, well established newspapers claimed that “Unesco calls for global ban on smartphones in schools”. As is so often the case with information in the “knowledge economy”, this headline went viral, many people, including educators, re-posted it and a whole range of other media outlets parroted the headline. A few days after that, friends and colleagues were sharing this headline with me.

The problem is that this is not what the report says. Classroom use of smartphones is problematised, and we might go so far as to say that banning is suggested, but to say that it is a call to ban smartphones is ridiculous, it’s an example of faulty understanding driven by a lack of reading in the first place. 

Now, whether smartphones should be banned or not in schools is another question, and merits its own discussion. I happen to agree with UNESCO (to actually quote the report accurately!), that “working with technology in schools, and the accompanying risks, may require something more than banning” (p. 157). This is just an example of how misunderstandings are circulated and amplified by social media. The problem is, to debunk such a statement, one would have to read the 418 page report, and who exactly is going to do that?

Unfortunately, and ironically (and this time it is deeply ironic), the world of educational theory is particularly rife with misinterpretation of theory, from brain gym to learning styles, neurotrash to the Mozart effect, multiple intelligences, techniques that “work” because of effect size analysis on meta-analyses to the infamous and widely misunderstood 10 000 hour rule. These soundbites are based on misguided, popularised and unsubstantiated shorthand that unfortunately, unless teachers read the research first hand (and recognise the tentative nature of much educational research in the first place), can find itself in the classroom with students as the undeserving Guinea pigs.

Next time you read a newspaper headline, or a tweet, a post, a statement, especially one that goes “viral”, ask yourself what the source is and who has read the research. The truth might not be as exciting to read as a dazzling affirmative or damning soundbite, but it needs to be respected.

Furthermore, let’s commit to reading the original of what we cite, ensure that our students read set texts  from cover to cover, insist that board and committee papers are read and not settle for lazy thinking based on skimming through headlines: it’s a slippery slope.

2 thoughts on “The problem of not reading”

  1. Thanks, Conrad. I think the term ‘critical’ is often seen as having a negative connotation, whereas ‘curious’ is not. However, the meaning of both words is quite similar – we need to explore information, the sources of information, and the meaning/messages behind the information before we can just digest them and assume them to be true. This is the case for students just as much as for the adults in the classroom.

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