How do you encourage pupils and students to think critically in the context of educational technology? Although we can devote a lot of time and energy to setting up the "right environment", I can't help thinking that really it all comes down to some pretty simple questions, and very straightforward approaches.
Suspect everyone and everything! Image (c) olarte.ollie, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ollieolarte/First, as a general rule, the teacher needs to encourage a critical approach by walking the talk. That means being open to an other-than-expected answer from students. All too often, a teacher will ask a question, and go round the class until they get the "right" answer.
To take a really simple example, if you ask a class what sort of software you would use to write a letter, how do you respond to a child who answers "a spreadsheet"? It would be good to know why they think that. It could be a lack of knowledge, or it could be a completely mistaken set of assumptions. On the other hand, it could be a logical idea.
I, for example, do not write letters using a spreadsheet. I do, however, create my invoices in a spreadsheet and then, if I wish to include a covering note or some additional information, put that in the invoice spreadsheet rather than in a word-processed letter. It saves time and is, for the recipient, much more efficient than having two different documents to look at.
So the second thing to do is to always ask "Why?". And not just once. When the answer comes, ask “Why?” again. Imagine this sort of exchange:
Teacher: How can you prevent other people opening your documents?
Student: Use a password.
T: Why would that make it secure?
S: Because people wouldn’t know what the password was.
T: Why not?
S: Because you would use personal information.
T: Why would that make the password secure?
You could take this sort of conversation in several directions, eliciting issues such as not using information that others can easily guess, or not leaving yourself logged in so that someone doesn’t even need to know your password. The point is that by asking “Why?"/Why not?” you’re making it clear that the answer given isn’t good enough because it still leaves room for doubt.
A big objection to this sort of approach will be that there is no time, that if you did that for every topic you’d never get through the syllabus. I don’t believe this to be the case because that assumes that the students don’t change. They do. Once they realise that you won’t let them get away with any old un-thought-though answer, they will start to think more carefully before answering. They will start to ask themselves the “Why?” question and the “How do you know?” question (see below).
In any case, if the whole point of having a syllabus, and lessons, is that the students learn stuff, what’s the point of getting through it in such a way that they don’t learn? The “we don’t have time” argument implicitly assumes that learning the content of the course is more important than learning how to think about the content. The students need both. (In this regard, see Steve Wheeler’s article, A dangerous game.)
Third, ask “How do you know?” Apply this in the same way as the “why?” question, especially to information sources or people, and the (implied) challenge, “Prove it!”. I always took the view that if I could get my students to not even believe me unless I had given them good reason to, I had done a good job.
Fourth, find some good resources and, fifth, develop good activities to go with them. A good starting point is a newly-opened website called Digital Disruption. It comprises several categories of “propaganda”, with lots of embedded YouTube videos, lesson plans and notes to accompany some of the videos. I’ve had a few quick looks and I think it warrants further exploration, although it is a bit of a mixed bag. The cartoony videos make their point but with a cacophonous soundtrack, while some lesson plans appear to be absent. At least, clicking on them doesn’t take you a lesson plan. Also, one of the Answers given to questions on one of the videos states that the video has been proven to be a hoax, without giving any references for that assertion, which seems to me to be a strange approach in a resource such as this. Still, have a look at it, and you may find your Media Studies colleagues appreciate it too – assuming that YouTube is not blocked in your school of course. If it is, this website provides a good case for getting it unblocked.
Bottom line: adopt the view espoused by George Bernard Shaw, Ambrose Bierce and others, that in any situation a cynical view is likely to prove justified!