Daniel Willingham recently shared a piece of research by a group at Stanford led by Sam Wineburg. Wineburg’s work is well-known in the history education community, and has helped a generation of history teachers and history education researchers to think through what is going on when someone reads a source or an interpretation. The article shared by Willingham focused on the extent to which young people (high school and college students in the USA) uncritically accept what they read online. The poor results will come as no surprise to anyone, although Wineburg et al’s research helpfully shows the scale of the problem.
What I found a little less convincing was the suggested solution, which was derived from studying the practices of professional fact-checkers. These practices gave three recommended steps for critical reading: (a) cross-reference with other sources, or ‘read laterally’, (b) more judicious use of Google, particularly in terms of not accepting the first or second option that comes up in a search and (c) wise use of Wikipedia, particularly in completing step (a), including as a gateway to more traditional sources.
It does not surprise me that these are the steps professional fact-checkers use. I quite frequently do these things myself when I read about something that is fairly new to me. The key for me, however, is what are the prior conditions that enable someone to read laterally? Imagine, for a moment, that a student encounters an article on Islamic radicalisation written by the organisation Britain First. A sensible student might then go and work through steps (a), (b) and (c), and will quickly encounter the Wikipedia page which offers the following as its introduction:
Britain First is a far-right and ultranationalist British political organisation formed in 2011 by former members of the British National Party (BNP). It was founded by Jim Dowson, an anti-abortion campaigner linked to Ulster loyalist groups in Northern Ireland. The organisation’s leader is former BNP councillor Paul Golding, and its deputy leader is Jayda Fransen. Britain First campaigns primarily against multiculturalism and what it sees as the Islamisation of the United Kingdom, and advocates the preservation of traditional British culture. It attracted attention by taking direct action such as its “Christian patrols” and “invasions” of British mosques. It has been noted for its online activism. Britain First has unsuccessfully contested elections to the House of Commons, the European Parliament and the mayoralty of London. In November 2017, it was statutorily deregistered as a party by the Electoral Commission.
If I wanted to skim through this quickly, then what constitutes the knowledge base I would need in order to read this fluently? Obvious things that stand out include:
- political organisation
- Ulster loyalist groups
- preservation of traditional British culture
- direct action
- unsuccessfully contested elections
- House of Commons
- European Parliament
- statutorily deregistered
- Electoral Commission
A typical broadsheet newspaper reader in the UK would have no difficulty at all with any of those ideas, because they are well-integrated into the knowledge base of the reader. Someone who knows little of these things is going to struggle to make sense of what the passage about is saying.
Importantly, a rich knowledge base was clearly not sufficient in Wineburg’s study, and indeed college professors – who presumably would be familiar with this type of vocabulary – were making some of the same mistakes as students. Cognitive biases are strong, and even if we are good at stopping and checking our sources in one context, we might well not automatically do this in another context (an interesting study here would be to see whether fact-checkers are more likely to adopt a critical stance in another everyday context, such as reading supermarket labels).
Teachers should however be cautious in looking for a silver bullet to critical reading. A generation of pupils in England have had a steady diet of being taught to cross-reference, check sources and question authorial intent in subjects such as English Language and history. I am not convinced that those leaving school today would necessarily do any better in Wineburg’s study. It is possible that we have just not been teaching children well enough. But, equally, this might just tell us that there is no quick-fix to being a critical reader. Strategies, such as those that the fact-checkers in Wineburg et al’s study referred to, are eminently sensible, but they rely on the prior assumption that the person doing the fact-checking already has access to a sufficiently large body of knowledge to be able to conduct the fact-checking exercise with ease. Frustratingly, teaching an extensive knowledge base is a slow process, and takes many years to do well, and it is thus no surprise that we often want to find a way to speed up this process. I remain unconvinced that this is possible.
There’s never any harm in teaching children heuristics and little mental check-lists, nor in encouraging them to normalise those practises as part of their daily lives. We should not, however, think that these things can compensate for the very broad knowledge base that serves as a necessary prior condition of success at critique.