Teaching Critical Thinking and Protecting the Science

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At Project Look Sharp, many of our lessons focus on scientific issues and content – especially related to environmental issues and sustainability – and the broader issues related to credibility of information in today’s complex and multifaceted media world.  A key focus for us has always been epistemology – how do we know what we know?  In designing lessons to analyze credibility and bias – while also teaching core scientific content – our approach has often involved presenting different perspectives or claims in a scientific argument, or claims presented by different sources in different types of documents, with key questions to drive the students’ exploration of the material.  But in doing so, are we unintentionally giving a voice to sources of disinformation and risking the chance that students will accept the less credible claims over the more credible ones? 

For the past several months we have been working with our educator collaborators to define our policy approach for creating media literacy lessons that include scientific misinformation.  This issue surfaced most recently when a few science professors/colleagues leveled a thoughtful critique about a few of our lessons that used climate denial media documents – in particular, one of the film clips highlighted in our PD demonstration video The Great Warming Swindle.  They felt that it was inappropriate – and potentially dangerous – for Look Sharp to include climate denial propaganda even if the lesson in question is specifically designed to have students debunk that disinformation.  They feared that these types of lessons may inadvertently perpetuate misinformation and legitimize anti-science views, and that some teachers could use them inappropriately or even use them to legitimize climate denial. They strongly felt that in the case of climate justice, the stakes are too high to allow debate of positions based on anti-science.  This critique pushed us to better define our approach when incorporating disinformation or potentially harmful media messages into our lessons.  Here is our initial articulation of that thinking, reflecting our values as an organization involved in media literacy education today.

New communication technologies have accentuated the political and cultural polarization of modern societies – leading to a flood of “alternative facts” that undermine traditional authorities and pave the way for the delegitimization of science.  The traditional approach of sticking to the facts and letting the science speak for itself is no longer enough. We must take the time to educate our students in how to think well, how to reason, and how to evaluate what is true, what is partly true, what is biased, what is misleading, what is distorted and what are outright lies.  In order for students to apply habits of critical thinking to the world of science, science education must bring the world of mediated messaging into the science classroom. 

Our students need a science curriculum that teaches students to… 

  • genuinely explore, discover and own for themselves the fundamental principles of science (the importance of the scientific method, the role of peer review, being open to new theories and evidence, etc.). 
  • habitually ask key questions about all media messages, including questions about sourcing, purpose, and the economics behind media messages.
  • rigorously evaluate the credibility, accuracy and bias in media messages that reflect the ideas (and propaganda) they encounter daily in the media. 
  • thoughtfully reflect on their own biases and how those they might impact their interpretations, including how confirmation bias can limit critical thinking and the ability to see complexity.

Constructivist media decoding can provide science education with an inquiry-based methodology that is aligned with scientific thought and that goes beyond merely stating the facts.  The facilitation of media analysis cannot be scripted; it must be designed to be developmentally appropriate and it requires that teachers know their students well so that they can probe student responses to understand their meaning-making.  So while Project Look Sharp publishes lessons for media decoding in the science classroom, teachers need to make the essential decisions of what media documents are appropriate for their students, what problems are too simple or too complex, what questions will address the essential ideas that students are on the cusp of understanding, and how to provoke the epistemological disequilibrium that enables our students  to grow their thinking.  At Project Look Sharp, we know that successful classroom media decoding is dependent upon the skill and knowledge of professional educators and we are sensitive to the need for good professional development and appropriate framing of media literacy lessons.  Yet we strongly believe that while there may be risks in trusting teachers to do this work, there are greater risks in not teaching students to decode distorted science.

Thus, Project Look Sharp will keep the following guidelines in mind as we create new lessons aligned to science standards that use misleading or distorted media.

  1. Frame the lessons for teachers so that they fully recognize any distortion or inaccuracies in the science and make clear the goals of student learning (e.g., to decode propaganda).  We have responsibilities to not inadvertently perpetuate dated and distorted science but also to promote student inquiry and questioning.  Misinformation needs to be put into a classroom context where students ultimately recognize the accurate science through their own authentic discovery.   
  2. Create lessons that teach students to recognize bias in multiple forms:  the biases of different stakeholder groups including industry, activists, and consumers;  the biases of those in power who sometimes obfuscate and raise questions to sow doubt; the biases in the news and popular media that emphasize false equivalence and didactic polarization, stoking fear and uncertainty; and our own confirmation biases that cause us to discredit information and sources that contradict our views while accepting uncritically authors and ideas that align with those views.
  3. Be clear about the complexities.  This includes distinguishing between social and scientific controversies.  While the science behind the anthropogenic causes of climate change – or the safety of vaccines, or the theory of evolution – are arguably resolved in the (never closed) world of science – the social and political and religious debates rage on.  We need to acknowledge the complexity of science; even well-informed scientists, and science teachers, are often confounded by the data, the different facts, the varied interpretations, and the conflicting views.  It is important to be transparent about the limits of our understanding.  Then the focus of our teaching can be on helping our students learn to navigate ambiguity, embrace complexity and manage uncertainty – and to distinguish between what we can know scientifically and what is currently beyond our understanding. 

You can explore these concepts through the resources in our huge archive of free lessons, media examples, curriculum kits, and handouts on the Project Look Sharp website – all grant-funded which allows us to make them available at no charge for educators.  Please let us know if you have other suggestions or feedback on how Project Look Sharp can support educators to prepare students for new ways of learning in these challenging times.

Chris Sperry, Director of Curriculum Staff Development


Cyndy Scheibe, Founder and Executive Director

Cyndy Scheibe