Why you should care
Because critical thinking is the lifeblood of a thriving democracy.
Over the past year, Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies have ramped up efforts to purge their platforms of accounts spreading fake news, conspiracy theories and other untruths across the internet. But the democratization of the media and the expansion of social media in recent years is placing an increasing burden on us, the consumers of this avalanche of news and information, to do a better job of discerning fact from fiction.
Are we up to the challenge? And how well will our children do at confronting an even more challenging media landscape in the years to come? The early returns are not promising, at least when it comes to how well most of us do at engaging in critical thinking on a regular basis — and asking our children to do the same — including in the critical area of seeking out viewpoints opposed to our own. According to the findings from a new survey of more than 1,100 adults by the Reboot Foundation, an organization committed to examining the state of critical thinking:
Only 20 percent of parents frequently or very often ask their children to consider an opposing view.
Critical thinking is, broadly speaking, that combination of logic, reasoning and analysis that allows us to marshal relevant evidence, weigh competing viewpoints and come to an informed opinion or decision. It is a type of reflective thought that is important not only for navigating our everyday lives but also for fulfilling our roles as citizens in a democracy. Critical thinking has always been important, but in a globalized world drowning in an ocean of information, it has arguably never been more essential.
And most people seem to recognize this importance. Nearly all of the Reboot survey respondents (more than 95 percent) agreed that critical thinking is necessary in today’s world, and is an important skill to teach to children. Similarly, 87 percent said that considering an opposing view is an important exercise.
It’s really human nature to prefer selective thinking.
Helen Lee Bouygues, president, Reboot Foundation
Still, as with a diet or a gym membership, it’s putting principle into practice where most of us fall short. About 25 percent of respondents said they rarely seek out people with views different from their own. And in addition to the one-fifth of parents who say they regularly ask their children to consider an opposing view, just a quarter claim they regularly help them evaluate evidence.
Why do we find ourselves in such a critical thinking void? The survey points to a range of reasons. Some 26 percent of respondents fingered a flawed education system, while 27 percent attributed it to modern technology. “Structurally the way we gather information today creates a natural challenge to the development of critical thinking skills,” says Helen Lee Bouygues, president of Reboot Foundation and the author of the study, of the issues presented by information technology. “That is something that is new and different from earlier forms of media.” Bouygues points to an example from her own life that helped inspire her to examine the issue in the first place: when she realized her seven-year-old daughter was going to Wikipedia to research a school paper even though she had books about that very topic on the shelf in her room.
But are we being realistic — and thinking critically enough — about the challenges of critical thinking? Bouygues says one of the opposing viewpoints she herself regularly confronts is the fact that critical thinking is hard. It’s not something that is natural for humans to do. “It’s really human nature to prefer selective thinking,” she says. “We feel more comfortable around those who share our own views.”
Critical thinking skills are key for many things today’s children will be asked to do as adults. They allow people to solve problems in the workplace, have reasoned arguments with loved ones, analyze risks, be skeptical of misinformation — and even encourage emotional intimacy with partners by allowing oneself to see things from another point of view.
So how do we overcome these inherent obstacles to thinking critically, and also practice what we preach, including with our children? The first step on that journey, according to Bouygues, is simple: awareness. And one of the encouraging results of the study is that a lot of people — across age, gender and income — are aware of the problem. The Reboot Foundation is already hard at work with cognitive neuroscientists to help contribute to the next step on that journey: giving individuals, especially parents and educators the tools they need to pursue critical thinking in more effective ways, including trying to harness the same technology currently challenging our critical thinking skills to help develop them instead. Watch this space.