Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Most Important Skill to Teach Students in the Age of Social Media (It's Not What You Think)

October 16, 2012

I shivered as I stared at the paper.

“There is no real way to know what to believe,” declared the student’s words.

It was two weeks into the school year, and our seventh grade teaching team had just created and administered an interdisciplinary baseline assessment for our 140 kids, asking them to use evidence from their classes to write an in-class essay answering the question:

“Why is the skill of determining what to believe essential?”

Dear reader, consider: Is there any more important question in the 21st century than how to determine truth?

My “Metacognition” poster flapped eerily on the classroom wall as I eyed the student’s words. Given this paper and other data from our baseline essays, our task as educators glowed urgently.

What would be the consequences if our teacher team did not fix the faulty assertion that there is “no real way to know what to believe?”

Confusion. In a typical 21st century day, we are awash in waves of information. If one thinks each crashing wall of water is equally important and should be dealt with the same way, drowning ensues. Are all endeavors equally important to devote one’s time to? Can humans eat every kind of food with no health repercussions? Can we help every cause? Without evidence-based reasoning, humans are lost.

Danger. Take one example from social media. Should a “DM” (Direct Message) on Twitter screeching, “OMG I didn’t see them taping u! Click 2 see: ---” be believed? No. Unfortunately, lack of critical thinking and research skills has led thousands of Twitter users to trustingly click, instantly getting their accounts hacked to spew spam to every one of their contacts. Naturally, the real-world versions of this are far more sinister. Researching and synthesizing evidence of danger is what saves us.

Paralysis. How can a human choose any meaningful course of action on earth if all advice is to be believed equally? From prioritizing school work, to picking a college, to voting in an election, selecting and synthesizing information is necessary to pick a path.

Failure. The student whose paper I was reading will fail school-- and many aspects of future endeavors-- if she really thinks there is no way to know what to believe. It’s our job, as teachers, to guide her and like-minded students toward a new way of thinking.

With hearts thumping, our teacher team gathered with the baseline data to set our year goal for the new state evaluation system. What had previously just been a chore to complete became an essential mission fit for a superhero, given the reality revealed by the baseline test.

We nodded as we typed the first line of our task for the next 170 days:

“All students will increase in proficiency in higher-order, critical-thinking skills, through evidence-based argumentation and analysis across the curriculum.”

What academic goal is more important now, in the age of social media, than this?

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