The long road to critical reading: against the ‘quick-fix’

‘Fake news’ sites are very much in the public eye at the moment, but commentators for many years have noted that school pupils often struggle to be critical about what they read in the media. Pupils tend to take things at face value, and assume that what they are being told is true, particularly if something is written convincingly with lots of examples, links to related information, pictures and so on.

The response to this endemic problem has been to teach children specific strategies to improve their criticality. We might teach them to look at who wrote the piece, for example, or to ask about the intended audience and purpose of the text. We might teach them about cross-referencing, and how to compare the information given in two or more texts. We might teach them to look at the status or position of the author, and to ask questions about why that particular author may want to say what he or she says. Such approaches are particularly prevalent in history and English language lessons, but they can be found in a range of other subjects as well, including the natural sciences.

Yet, I would argue, these approaches are, if not unhelpful, then at least missing a crucial component.

If you will grant me a small diversion, consider the following two paragraphs.

Extract 1

“In the seventh century the Saxon kingdom of Mercia decided to go to war against Penda, the king of Dyfed, and called on her Anglian allies in Northumbria to join the fight. Penda was a pagan, unlike the Christian Mercians and Northumbrians, who were the first of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to convert to Christianity. The war was successful and the Mercian and Northumbrian allies forced Penda to convert to Christianity, which was celebrated at the Synod of Whitby where the Celts were forced to submit to Roman Christianity.”

Taken from a website about the history of Britain in the first millennium

Extract 2

“Hitler wanted to make Germany a strong country again after her defeat in the First World War and the subsequent financial problems created for Germany by the Zionist groups operating at the time. When Hitler invaded eastern Europe, he faced some opposition from Zionist groups, which he successfully defeated. Rumours were spread at the time that Hitler had ordered the extermination of Jews in eastern Europe, but these reports were exaggerated in order to serve the purposes of a clandestine Zionist conspiracy.”

Taken from a website about the history of Europe in the twentieth century

What did you make of the two paragraphs? How did you feel when you were reading them? My hunch is that most readers, unless they happen to have studied seventh-century British history, will probably have read the first and thought ‘okay, don’t know much about this’, but will then have read the second and thought ‘well this is clearly a load of nonsense’. The first paragraph, of course, is as factually inaccurate as the second, but unless you happen to know at least a bit about the relationship between Northumbria, Mercia and Gwynedd, then you probably did not have major alarm bells ringing when you read it, in the same way as you did for the second paragraph.

Now why did you get alarm bells for the second and (probably) not for the first? What was is that you, as an educated person, have in your head that makes you read the second paragraph and think ‘this is shocking’ and yet not necessarily have the same reaction to the first? My hunch is that most readers of this blog will know at least a bit about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, but probably not very much about seventh-century Britain.

And herein lies the problem with asking pupils to read ‘critically’. The fastest way to recognise that a text is wrong, misleading or propaganda is to know a bit about what you are reading. The more you know, the less likely you are to have the wool pulled over your eyes. Yet we cannot be experts in everything: we have instead to have a sufficient, critical mass of knowledge which gives us enough to go on, which then allows us to read a text with a critical eye. Even if our knowledge base is about similar or related events, we are still likely to be in a stronger position to read a text critically.

But the problem with this approach is that it takes time. Vast amounts of time. Years and years of education are required to get a child to the point where he or she has the knowledge base of an interested generalist; this is sort of what Hirsch means when he talks about ‘cultural literacy’. This is why we have tried for so long to identify ‘quick fixes’ that get around the knowledge problem: critical reading strategies to deploy, generic questions about audience and purpose, and so on. Whilst I am not against encouraging pupils to show a healthy degree of scepticism about what they read, I would nevertheless suggest that the single most helpful thing we can do for our pupils is to teach them as much knowledge as we possibly can.

This is not a quick fix. It is hard work and takes many years. But I think a broad knowledge base is the very basis of a model of schooling that sees creating critical citizens as one of its aims.


5 Comments on The long road to critical reading: against the ‘quick-fix’

  1. I understand what you’re saying, but no one can learn or remember everything, and so we need strategies to deal with the situations where we don’t, which will be many. The other thing I would say is that the reason we all know more about the second piece is because it describes something that happened in living memory. Whether or not the first extract should be classed as propaganda is largely irrelevant to the modern reader (unless they are an historian), because these divisions no longer exist or have any impact on our day to day lives (I’m sure they have influenced modern Britain, but the influence is no longer direct). Although it’s obviously important to be factual, and the 7th century stuff might be interesting, it doesn’t have any direct impact on our lives or our political viewpoint, whereas the second one does. Maybe, unless we are specialists in a subject, we just tend to know more about what is relevant or seems important to us? And this is where ‘cultural literacy’ becomes about people who have more power deciding what is important for people who have less. Hope that makes sense.

  2. Another key thing is to give children the experience of knowing enough to make an informed judgement. Once they have had this experience, they will be better able to realise that they are ignorant about other topics. The more we know, the more we realise that we don’t know.

  3. Well put, Michael.

    Trouble with all the attention to “Fake News sites” in today’s media is that a great deal of that (the discussion of “Fake News”) is itself (actual) fake news — it is political propaganda. In this environment it is incumbent upon citizens of intellectual competence to read widely and questioningly.

    Further, there is nothing particularly new about faked news. Propaganda is likely the second-oldest profession, and attention-seeking behaviour is wired into small children (and most of us don’t grow out of it; we only become more sophisticated in how we do this). One thing that is somewhat new — meaning perhaps the last 50 to 100 years or so: the large-scale, deliberately planned and orchestrated, construction of complex social narratives designed to alter a whole society’s understanding of the world and events around them.

    Regardless of which side of the aisle it comes from … question the narrative. There are no particularly good filters when the whole objective of narrative builders is to defeat your filters. But I’ve found one which is somewhat reliable: Be particularly suspicious of those who present themselves as unbiased arbiters of what is true, of what is genuine versus fake “news”. This means we must question our social and cultural institutions: media, entertainment, and education and be alert for distortions of the truth therein … for controlling these are the key strategic objective of those who’d like to control what you believe to be true.

  4. The Tudors succeeded in making a large scale social narrative which changed a nation’s view of itself and the world centuries ago. The meticulous work of scholars such as Duffy shows how the only antidote to propaganda is a long hard struggle for better knowledge.

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