After the school shooting in Florida fake news reports flooded the internet saying two survivors who spoke out after the tragedy were actors and not real students.

The reasons given for the supposed elaborate deception range from CNN paying actors, to the far-fetched claim that actors were employed by the government to pretend they witnessed an event which never happened. Supposedly, as part of an attempt to build political will to ban guns.

This claim crumples in the face of reason after US President Donald Trump suggested teachers should be armed. Despite this and the fact the identities of the students being confirmed as students, the claim –  along with many other fake news claims persist on conspiracy sites.

In a post-truth era of alternative facts and fake news, the ability to discern what is true is an increasingly important skill.

Learning the skills to apply reason to claims is something built into New Zealand’s school curriculum as one of five key competencies required for living and lifelong learning. Critical thinking involves questioning evidence, the validity of sources of information and reaching conclusions based on evidence.

Assessing a student’s ability to think critically isn’t mandatory until they reach NCEA, so while the skill forms part of the national curriculum, the teaching of it isn’t necessarily reported against until the senior years of high school.

Long Bay College’s Head of English, Karen Le Roux said students need critical thinking skills to deal with today’s world.

“I think kids are inundated with information. Information is so easily available to them and there’s so much of it, for them to have filters in place is really important.”

She said she’s not sure all students have the ability to weed out fake news.

“From a school point of view, when they are doing a research thing, yes, but from a general point of view, when they read something on the news, I think they believe a lot of what they see without really questioning it to be honest. Even though they are told, and will tell you, everything on the internet is not true.”

Students at Le Roux’s school recently took part in a study relating to critical thinking. The respectful talk study aimed to give students the skills to discuss topics with each other in a way which encourages critical thinking.

Critical thinking is embedded into NCEA levels, however, involvement in the study made Le Roux feel the teaching of these skills need to start before the senior years of high school.

“I think it made us conscious that it’s all well and good to do critical thinking but if they haven’t had it earlier on in their high school years, it’s too little, too late.

“What we are doing now is moving it right back down to Year 9 and moving up that way. We obviously did a bit, but ad-hoc and just when was necessary rather than more of a focused kind of programme.”

Respectful talk was an inter-faculty study created by Dr Patrick Girard from The University of Auckland’s art faculty and Dr Maree Davies, who is part of the education faculty. 

Davies is still writing up the results of the study which ran in 32 classrooms across Auckland but said the study focused on a model which helped children discuss philosophical ideas and examine unconscious biases they may hold. 

“People have always been bad with logic and critical thinking. We didn’t invent stupidity, it’s always been there.”

“You want to be really encouraging children to not be personally offended if their ideas get challenged, I think we sometimes take that as a personal affront. It’s important to have our ideas challenged and it’s important for us to know how to disagree agreeably.”

The skills the children were taught in the classroom were taken into the real world. Some of the children involved in the study told Davies they found themselves listening for evidence when claims were made in everyday conversations.

Other feedback she received while doing the study pointed to a desire from teachers for more focus to be put on critical thinking.

“Currently there is a review going on for NCEA and I am sure many of the submissions by teachers will be that opportunities for critical thinking increase. Some of the assessments in NCEA don’t demand it until Year 13 and many of the teachers in my studies said that was very problematic.”

Consultation for the NCEA review commences in April and the review is expected to be complete by December 2018.

Davies said she thinks the teaching of critical thinking should start well before high school and is a skill children need plenty of practice at.

“Sometimes you get very articulate people who are very convincing. They know how to emphasise the right words or use quite emotional language and I think all of easily be tricked, that what they are saying is actually true. Kids need their minds to be trained to listen for the logic of that person’s reasoning.”

A Lower Hutt primary school teacher (who did not want to be identified) said there is plenty of scope in the current curriculum to build critical thinking into everyday teaching, but it comes down to individual teachers and schools.

“The thing is, often with education in New Zealand is that we have quite a good curriculum, it’s quite open to how you want to take it. It’s not really prescriptive, it’s not saying here is a critical thinking lesson that you teach.

“That’s the problem, that gap between what’s in the curriculum and how it plays out in the classroom.”

For her it’s about instilling a curiosity in children they can build on as they learn specific critical thinking skills.

She said she integrates critical thinking into everything she does with students. Impromptu lessons may take place in the playground discussing healthy food, in class after reading a book together, or even during a handwriting lesson discussing why full stops are needed and what would happen if you wrote sentences without spaces between the words. The integration of learning different skills in activities is something which she said is pushed at primary level as it reflects what happens in real life.

Reporting, though, isn’t integrated in the same way. Some schools choose to include key competencies in school reports. However, sharing how a student is tracking has not been formalised in the same way standards of reading, writing and mathematics had been reported under the now-defunct national standards system.

“Critical thinking is not like reading at level such-and-such, and there’s a lot in education which is like that, particularly at the early stages. If you’re not worried about reporting back, then that’s something that can go under the radar.”

She believes the removal of national standards could lead to more time in the school day for discussions which encourage critical thinking skills.

Dr Girard, University of Auckland’s expert in critical and logical thinking, thinks the age of fake news makes learning how to think critically more salient than ever before.

“People have always been bad with logic and critical thinking. We didn’t invent stupidity, it’s always been there.”

The sheer amount – and range – of information the internet has made available to us is what has changed he said.

“If you’re just looking for someone who has the same views as you have, it’s too easy. Take any old crazy view and google it, and you’ll find groups that believe in it.”

The course Girard teaches at the University of Auckland is popular with students and has had more than 1200 students enrolled in one semester. Over 90,000 people have enrolled in a version of the course which is run as a free online MOOC (massive open online course).

He warns doing a single course is not a magical solution to bad reasoning. Critical thinking is a skill which takes time to build and needs to be practiced.

Girard said he doesn’t think New Zealand is doing a bad job of teaching critical thinking.

“I think we’re doing as good as we can. We can do better, there’s always room for improvement.”

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