Digital Literacy and Critical Thinking Skills: Separating Fact from Opinion

Posted by Big Universe on Jun 2, 2013 8:00:45 PM


In the early days of using the internet as a research tool, to my shock and horror, I noticed that my Comp and Lit college students were doing something much worse than handing in pre-written and heavily circulated essays. What could be worse than purchasing or borrowing, a.k.a., cheating? Cutting and pasting random quotes from the internet into a Word program, heavily plagiarized as they were not attributed to sources, and not promoting a single, original thought. At least with a recycled paper, there would be a few stray thoughts from the "new" author. I sat down to a slew of these papers, hobbled together with no transitions, no structure or developed thesis. I googled some phrases from student papers and soon found the sources, and poor sources at that. I knew that my next lesson would be: what is plagiarism; what the school’s consequences for it is; and critical thinking skills about sources and, of course, defining a thesis.

What bothered me most, aside from their laziness, is that my students took opinions as fact. And I clearly am not alone. Johanna Llanos in Teaching Students Better Online Research Skills, writes of an elementary school teacher who realized that her students were submitting projects with misinformation and also began teaching online research skills. Llanos points out that teachers and librarians now teach how to “evaluate a website's credibility, how to use precise keywords, and how to better mine search engines and databases.” It includes how to use search engines and how words, symbols, quotation marks and even minus signs help better focus research. These skills are often labeled digital-literacy skills, but knowing how to effectively research is only the first step in understanding the research, a part of critical thinking skills.

Old-school critical thinking expert, Edward Glaser has written much on this topic, which dates back to 1941. Especially with today's Common Core push, teachers need to address critical thinking – who is the source, does the source have a bias, what is another perspective to the issue? To portray opinions (even some newspaper articles) as fact is a huge disservice to our children. A great example is the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. Although commonly regarded as factual, it is written by volunteers and may not be objective or accurate. And as my young son begins online research, I have taught him, just becuase it is in Wikipedia, or anywhere online, doesn't mean it is accurate information.

In A Quick Guide to 21st Century Critical Thinking Skills for Educators includes a great schema to use to teach critical thinking skills, one that can be modified for younger students and used in parts or a whole for older students:

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An infographic based on Enokson (above) is “a kind of road map containing all the major critical thinking skills we need to know.” I find the evaluation section most important as it is the first step toward owning an original thought, and without it, there would be no thesis in student essays.

"Cyberspace" Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Topics: Classroom Ideas, Technology, Literacy

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