Sunday, August 8, 2010

Critical Thinking

One of the jobs of a teacher of the youngest children to the graduate students is to teach critical thinking skills. This is the skill needed to evaluate the world. As part of the development of this skill students need a certain body of knowledge as basis for the next step in knowledge. A second part is the search for recorded knowledge that is search skills. The third part is evaluating, assimilating and synthesizing new knowledge. For example very young children need to learn about the dangers of a hot stove. The child needs the basic knowledge of hot and danger and then how to synthesize the kinds of devices that can be hot enough to cause pain and burn. The child does not need to be taught every style and make of stove to learn they are a source of danger.

With electronic information sources students today have access to more information at a faster pace than at any time in the past. I remember in the 1970's I was teaching a class of 7th graders. It was a time before the personal computer. I asked the student to write a paper. Since I didn't expect them all to know how to type I gave them the option to record on tape their words. I was too trusting as I didn't warn them about plagiarism or how to properly use an encyclopedia. One student took me up on my offer and handed in a tape. The student's words did not seem like what a 7th grader could write. It was not even read dramatically. The student did not even practice the hard to pronounce words. It took me about 5 minutes to find that the student plagiarized the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today copying and plagiarizing is as easy as copy and paste.

Critical thinking is required to find, evaluate and use the information. As librarians we can help researchers learn about and search sources. Educators teach students how to use multiple sources to pin down and triangulate the facts. Encyclopedias, blogs, academic journals, newspapers, web sites are all possible sources. Each type of source has it strengths and weaknesses. The job of the teacher is to show students how to use the sources. General encyclopedias have a place in understanding topics.

Wikipedia, which started in 2001, has more than 3,371,937 articles in the English version compared to about 120,000 in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

An article in the prestigious journal Nature ("Wiki's wild world." Nature 438.7070 (2005): 890) stated that in an examination of forty-two science articles Wikipedia contained about four errors per entry, compared to Britannica's three. Wikiepedia's articles were longer and more recently updated to the comparable Britannica's articles. Since 2005 Wikipedia has raised its writing standards and security levels. Stub and incomplete articles are clearly marked as are articles that have incomplete or unbalanced content. Articles have sources and can be corrected or enhanced immediately. In the subject of an article dies, the article will be corrected within hours of the announcement.

Goldsborough says that the on line version of Encyclopedia Britannica accepts edits as does Wikipedia. (Goldsborough, Reid. September 2009. Internet Encyclopedias in Flux. Tech Directions. 69 (2):12-13.)

Teachers can demand that students not use an encyclopedia as a quoted source in a class or research paper, but should teach the use of encyclopedias. They have a role in fact checking and gathering general knowledge for critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking involves recognizing and trying to solve problems, gathering sources and materials, comprehending and interpreting the sources, analysis and interpretation of data, examining evidence, making logical connections between sources, making conclusions, generalizing the knowledge learned, and testing the conclusions.

Be alert to deception and find the truth in all that you read. We are all beginners standing on the shoulders of giants. (For the source of this statement see "Standing on the shoulders of giants" in Wikipedia,

Note: Plagiarism is a difficult problem with student papers. They don't always see that copying without attribution is wrong. See a recent article in the New York Times, "Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age," By Trip Gabriel. Aug. 1, 2010 ( The author says that students who have not been taught critical thinking and proper research or study skills are not prepared for the rigors of college and scholarly writing.

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