Learning How to Know in 2017

How do your students learn how to know? And what does your teaching look like in the face of a devaluing of shared truth, deepening political polarization and the mainstreaming of intolerance?

Editor’s note: This post, part one of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017, offers a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy. Find part two, a classroom example of teaching about confirmation bias, here. Find part three, a window into a classroom discussion on trust and knowledge, here. Find part four, a review of how students learn how to know (epistemological development) here. Find part five, a discussion of skepticism and bias, here. Find part six, an argument for teaching about diverse ideologies and perspectives, here.

It’s important for educators to determine a way forward in a time when many of the core values of education—fact-based arguments, civility, inclusivity and the cultivation of curiosity—are under assault. The devaluing of shared truth, deepening political polarization and the mainstreaming of hate have created a steeper climb toward the goal of helping students evaluate and think critically about the content they consume. Educators thus need to better understand how students access and integrate information, and how media works. 

There is considerable research on how our brains seek new knowledge and integrate it into our existing worldviews. No student is a blank slate; learning is not just the acquisition of new information but also the correction, refinement and enhancement of existing ideas and assumptions. This is especially important given the prevalence of confirmation bias, which refers to our tendency to more readily believe information that supports—or confirms—our existing worldviews and to exclude information that might contradict previously held assumptions. Like other forms of bias, it is experienced as a cognitive shortcut that aims to simplify and reduce what’s known as cognitive dissonance: the mental stress of encountering information that contradicts previously held assumptions. The response to cognitive dissonance is typically to discount the new information and to latch on even more tightly to the ideology that is under threat.

As a result, even when new information is presented as factual and verified, what researchers call a backfire effect occurs: Our attachment to our assumptions becomes stronger in the face of contradictory information. We also practice what’s known as motivated directional reasoning, a more active version of confirmation bias that not only compels us to dismiss counterarguments and pursue information that matches preexisting assumptions but also clouds our ability to evaluate arguments effectively. We rate arguments that align with our views as more credible than opposing arguments. Our brains are capable of impressive, unconscious gymnastics to keep our worldviews intact, which makes challenging assumptions and advancing our respective thinking quite difficult.

For teachers, these tendencies underscore the necessity of gathering knowledge about students’ prior assumptions. Of course, the challenge is that, depending on students’ ages, they may not have well-developed, pre-existing political identities or worldviews, and what they do have will likely derive from their parents’ or families’ views, placing us educators in sensitive territory. And yet, an understanding of cognitive habits can provide an opening to justifying the importance of alternative viewpoints, open-mindedness and curiosity since, no matter where we might fall on the political spectrum, we are all prone to these thinking traps.

Constant self-scrutiny, reflection and skepticism, as essential to the scientific process as they are to any form of anti-bias work in schools, need to be practiced and modeled by teachers and students in all venues. Students need our help learning about and navigating this knowledge and information landscape. As such, the terms discussed here need to be part of the discourse within our classrooms.

Like most work around bias, it is made far more complicated by the political and social context in which it occurs. Our reliance on social media only exacerbates these tendencies. Many of us are stuck in echo chambers, sealed media ecosystems in which there is a perception of widespread consensus and unanimity. The resulting filter bubbles—for example, personalized search results, news streams created by websites’ algorithms or participation in closed ecosystems of like-minded thinkers—mean that we have to work harder to encounter, let alone be open to accepting, information that contradicts our thinking. Social media is also especially prone to the phenomenon of fake news, media that is produced to appear genuine but that is actually based on falsehood, exaggeration or propaganda. Similarly, clickbait, salacious or enticing headlines meant to drive clicks (and therefore advertising revenue), can pull students’ focus away from seeking accurate information and from a diversity of viewpoints.

Finally, there is the familiar problem of the digital natives in our classrooms who see knowledge as something to consume and receive, and who thus fall prey to what philosopher of knowledge Michael Patrick Lynch argues is “the thought that all knowing is downloading—that all knowing is passive.” In other words, some students may view knowledge as something to be acquired passively rather than actively sought, which only further reinforces the tendency to accept information that supports pre-existing worldviews and to be susceptible to “fake news” and propaganda.

Given the mental shortcuts we take while learning and the treacherous landscape in which that learning occurs, learning to know in 2017 is indeed a challenge. We certainly don’t want our classrooms to fall prey to the same damaging patterns we see in our social media consumption; we don’t want our classrooms to become echo chambers in which there is no dissension (nor do we need to bend over backward to accommodate all views). While it’s easier to stay ensconced in an echo chamber of mutual biases and closed-loop reasoning, our students will better learn to know—and come to some actual truths—when they venture out to interrogate and reflect.  

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.

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