Think Critically!

Based on the insights of college and university teachers that have used www.newsactivist.com to facilitate conversations on social and political issues, this project provides concrete strategies, including exercises, rubrics and facilitation guidelines, for anyone looking to facilitate dialogue and develop the critical thinking skills of youth through online discussions.

Nicole Fournier-Sylvester talks about hate speech, freedom of expression, critical thinking, and her “Think Critically!” project.

Guidelines

Introduction

An important strategy for addressing hate speech is to work with youth to develop the skills to recognize the propaganda and manipulation techniques that permeate many online social networks. Based on the insights of college and university teachers that have used www.newsactivist.com to this end, the following exercises, rubrics and examples of interventions provide concrete strategies to develop the critical thinking skills of students through online discussions. The integrated comment boxes are meant to encourage feedback and an exchange of ideas and resources between teachers who share this commitment.

Why use an online discussion forum to develop critical thinking skills?

An online platform:

  • Allows time for reflection before engaging in discussion
  • Helps place the emphasis on arguments instead of individuals
  • Can emulate the discussions that occur on social media, thus facilitating the transfer of critical thinking skills to social networks
  • Allows teachers and students to see and evaluate how a discussion has evolved
  • Can be used to develop digital literacy and citizenship skills

In addition, there are many platforms that are specifically designed to link students and classrooms from around the world, thus exposing students to a wide range of perspectives and ideas.

1. Take the time to introduce the platform to your students.

Teachers who have attempted to integrate online discussion forums insist that first and foremost you need to realize that students are not necessarily as tech savvy as you might expect. It is thus imperative to take the time to go through the selected platform.  An introductory assignment (appendix 1 pdf) that requires getting to know and registering for the site can help address any technical challenges or navigation issues before participating in discussions. Having students take the time to look through discussion threads and identify what works well is a good strategy for having them think about how to share ideas online.

Comments: What platforms have you tried? What works well?

2. Have students establish norms of online communication.

Creating an online space where students feel comfortable debating ideas requires that students respect certain rules.  Developing these rules can be seen as a strategy for developing critical thinking and digital citizenship skills in and of itself.

EXAMPLE OF EXERCISE TO DEVELOP NORMS OF COMMUNICATION:

Ask students to reflect on, write about or discuss the following questions:

  1. How do you think online dialogue might differ from classroom discussion? In your opinion, what might be some advantages or disadvantages?
  2. What do you need from yourself and the group to participate effectively in dialogue? In other words, what would help you feel more comfortable sharing your thoughts and experiences as well as reading those of other students that you might find challenging or unsettling? 1

In small groups, have students come up with three “Norms of Communication” that would help address any of these concerns.

EXAMPLES:

  • never comment on language, spelling, grammar*
  • always address the argument, not the individual
  • start with something positive before providing a critique

* This is essential when dealing with second-language learners

Show 1 footnote

  1.  Ximena Zuniga, Dialogue: Social Issues in Intergroup Dialogue- Exploring Social/Cultural Differences and Common Ground (Course Outline, 2014), 10.

3. Before engaging in discussion, introduce students to the skills needed to evaluate arguments and online sources.

Critical thinking consists of the skilled and systematic questioning and analysis of information and argumentation.1 These questions address the legitimacy of the source, the structure of the argument as well as the evidence provided.  Having students learn about and identify common errors in reasoning (appendix 2 pdf)2, for example, prepares them to recognize weak and manipulative arguments.

EXAMPLES OF EXERCISES TO INTRODUCE CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS:

Exercise 1:

Read:

  1. Crap Detection 1013
  2. Assessing the Credibility of Online Sources

Answer:

  1. According to the reading, what is “crap”?
  2. What are key questions that you need to keep in mind when evaluating sites?
  3. Evaluate the site martinlurtherking.org according to the guidelines from your reading

Exercise 2:

  1. Read the handout on fallacies (appendix 2 pdf)
  2. Choose a social media site and identify three fallacies

Comments: How do you introduce critical thinking skills to your students? Do you have any sites or strategies to suggest?

Show 3 footnotes

  1.  Alec Fisher and David Scriven. Critical Thinking: Its Definition and Assessment (England: Centre for Research in Critical Thinking , 1997), 21.
  2.  Cherri Porter. “Handout on Fallacies,”  http://www.cherriporter.com/docs/fallacy%20handout.pdf
  3.  Howard Rheingold, June 30, 2009 (3:12 p.m.), “Crap Detection 101,” http://blog.sfgate.com/rheingold/2009/06/30/crap-detection-101/

4. As much as possible, let students determine the topics of discussion.

In order to maintain student motivation it is recommended that students have the opportunity to select their own topics. This may be done by directing students to news sites and then having them vote on the topics they would like to discuss. There are a variety of free web-based polling tools 1 that you can use to this end.

Comments: What types of topics do your students choose? How did they go about choosing them?

Show 1 footnote

  1.  David Byrne, Tuesday, February 28, 2012, “Free Technology for Teachers,” http://www.freetech4teachers.com/2012/02/11-web-based-polling-and-survey-tools.html#.VUEa4lZ-E3R

5. Provide clear expectations regarding student interactions and grading.

As many teachers report, participation in discussion on and off-line does not necessarily improve critical thinking skills. You need to work towards the development of higher order thinking skills…but how?

First, research shows that unless online discussions are graded they are unlikely to be taken seriously by students.

Second, you need to provide clear expectations for the type of interaction that you are expecting. This can include providing a framework for the assessment of the quality of participation1 (appendix 3 pdf).

EXAMPLE OF STRATEGY TO SCAFFOLD CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS ONLINE:

Ask students to label their comments as follows:

  • Discuss to comprehend: means that a students’ comment serves to interpret, elaborate or make connections to prior learning
  • Discuss to critique: involves carefully examining people’s views in order to build on or add new insights or challenge ideas
  • Discuss to construct knowledge: requires negotiating meanings, comparing and contrasting views, raising questions and sometimes revising thinking
  • Discuss to share improved understanding: synthesizes personal learning and expresses improved understanding based on review of discussion thread 2

In order to encourage ongoing interaction you can include in your assignment’s (appendix 4 pdf) description the expectation that students comment on each other’s posts and actively pursue posts that have not yet been commented on. You may also require that all posts should end with a question in an effort to keep the conversation going.

Show 2 footnotes

  1.  Dip Nandi, Shanton Chang and Sandrine Balbo, “A Conceptual Framework for Assessing Interaction Quality in Online Discussion Forums” (paper presented at Ascilite, Auckland, 2009): 670.
  2.  Fei Gao, Charles X. Wang and Yanling Sun, “A New Model of Productive Online Discussion and Its Implications for Research and Instruction,” Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange 2 (2009): 70-73.

6. Provide clear guidelines regarding your role.

You should also provide a clear description of your role in online discussion. Given that students cannot see you they may wonder whether you are reading their posts at all. Many teachers report being uncertain about their own role in these discussions. Although there are many ways that you may decide to be involved, a clear description of your role will help you and your students know what to expect.

EXAMPLE OF DESCRIPTION OF TEACHER’S ROLE IN ONLINE FORUM:

  • You can expect that I will be reading ALL posts but will not be responding to each post individually. Instead, I will be sharing information, making comments and asking questions that are directed at the class rather than the individuals.
  • At the “end” of each conversation, I will be posting a summary of the conversation.
  • Using the provided rubric, I will be entering grades for your message board contributions at mid-semester and then again at the end of the semester.1

Show 1 footnote

  1.  Christine Harrington and Maya Aloni, “Promoting Critical Thinking through Online Discussion: Developing Questions and Managing Conversations” (paper presented at Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching, Middlesex County College New Jersey, June 1,2013).

7. Ask probing questions.

Although there is much debate on this topic, it is generally recognized that teachers should make their presence known.1  Without taking control of the conversation, it is important to maintain the development of higher order thinking skills by modeling what you expect from your students and intervening when needed. As a moderator, you can post questions to help your students advance their thinking, individually and as a group. 

EXAMPLES OF QUESTIONS TO FURTHER DISCUSSION

Learning Purpose Socratic Questions

Clarifying Explanations

What do you mean by….? Provide an additional example of…. How does this compare and/or contrast to….? What are the potential advantages and disadvantages of…?
Questioning Assumptions What other explanations might account for this? What are the assumptions behind this statement? 
Exploring Additional Evidence How can we find out more about this topic?  How does this connect to the concepts we’ve discussed previously?  What additional evidence can you find to support or refute this idea? 
Multiple Perspectives What would someone who disagrees say? What are the cultural implications? 
Real World Implications What are potential consequences or implications of this? Provide a real world example of….
Self-Reflective Processes Why should this issue matter?  What is the importance of learning about this issue?   What other questions do you now want to explore? 2

Comments: How are you involved in online discussions? What are strategies would you suggest?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. George Collison, Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind and Robert Tinker, Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators (Madison WI: Atwood Publishing, 2000).
  2.  Harrington and Aloni, “Promoting Critical Thinking.” 5.

8. Conclude by reflecting on the process.

Meta-cognitive skills can be nurtured through a concluding assignment that has students reflect on their participation and the evolution of their thinking. You can ask students to analyze and point out what discussions appeared to be most effective and why. Students can also conduct an analysis of their own online networks to consider the extent to which the participants appear to apply critical thinking skills.

Conclusion

Finally, learning to critically navigate and engage in discussion through social media is quickly becoming an essential civic skill.  Developing the capacity to engage in thoughtful discussions on social and political issues online will help students circumvent hate-based dialogue and diffuse conflict in an effort to work towards greater tolerance and understanding.

Comments: What guidelines and/or resources can you share about critical thinking and online discussion forums?

Creator

Nicole Fournier-Sylvester PhD

Nicole Fournier-Sylvester is a humanities teacher at Champlain College Saint-Lambert and has a PhD in Education from Concordia University.

Paper

From the Chat Room To the Voting Booth: The Potential of Using Online Discussion Forums to Develop Civic Skills

Fournier-Sylvester, N. (2014). From the chat room to the voting booth: The potential of using online discussion forums to develop civic skills. Citizenship Education Research Network.

Abstract

Since the 1990s globally networked learning environments (GNLEs) have emerged as pathways for dialogue between students from around the world. Although it was initially hoped that bringing diverse populations together online would naturally foster the inclusion of disparate voices and viewpoints, it is now widely acknowledged that online communications may just as easily reinforce pre-existing social arrangements as challenge them.  Grounded in the assumption that dialogue which is meant to serve civic and peace-building ends must acknowledge and work to transform inequalities, this article provides an overview of the theoretical and empirical literature on facilitated intergroup/intercultural online dialogue in educational contexts as well as the issues surrounding power and inclusivity in digital and dialogical settings. Recommendations emerging  from the literature regarding inclusive design features and the shifting parameters of what it means to be a teacher  in these contexts will also be addressed as well as transformative potential of GNLEs for intercultural communication and social justice education.

Presentation

Global dialogues through educational technologies: A critical literature review of current practices and their transformative potential.

The International Academic Forum, Hawaiian Conference Series, Hawaii Convention Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, January 11, 2016.

 Conference proceedings abstract

Since the 1990s globally networked learning environments (GNLEs) have emerged as pathways for dialogue between students from around the world. Although it was initially hoped that bringing diverse populations together online would naturally foster the inclusion of disparate voices and viewpoints, it is now widely acknowledged that online communications may just as easily reinforce pre-existing social arrangements as challenge them.  Grounded in the assumption that dialogue which is meant to serve civic and peace-building ends must acknowledge and work to transform inequalities, this article provides an overview of the theoretical and empirical literature on facilitated intergroup/intercultural online dialogue in educational contexts as well as the issues surrounding power and inclusivity in digital and dialogical settings. Recommendations emerging  from the literature regarding inclusive design features and the shifting parameters of what it means to be a teacher  in these contexts will also be addressed as well as transformative potential of GNLEs for intercultural communication and social justice education.

Social Media, Hate Speech, and Citizenship Education in Canada

Paper presented at the meeting of the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, Ottawa, ON.

 R. McGray, N. Fournier-Sylvester, T. Thomas, S. Das, K. Urbaniak, V. Venkatesh, & J. Rabah.

 Abstract

This presentation seeks to address the connection between citizenship education in Canada and the phenomenon of hate speech in social media. To do so, the presentation will report on initial findings of the Project SOMEONE (SOcial Media EducatiON Everyday) research program, which is aimed at developing curricula for learning across the lifespan to prevent and combat hate appearing in online environments. This interdisciplinary research project seeks to understand how educational technologies, specifically social media, can be coupled with theories of citizenship and peace education in order to raise consciousness around contentious socio-political issues. This project aims to equip Canadians with the competences necessary to recognize and act against online hate, providing them with curricular material and associated pedagogical strategies that support healthy communication, foster powerful learning spaces, and engage communities in productive public discussion. Likewise, this research aims to identify how Canadians participate in online communities that foster citizenship in the face of adversity and how the evolving field of social media acts to enable or constrain resilience. Discussants include experts from the fields of Citizenship and Peace Education, Educational Technology, Critical Media Studies, Art Education, Marketing, Sociology, and Computer Science.