Thinking Critically (Lesson C)

In this lesson, we will develop skills in thinking critically about articles, moving beyond what the authors have to say on a topic, to examine how and why they say it. This is a move beyond summary towards analysis.

Note

This lesson draws on knowledge of two articles. If you haven’t already, you will want to read them now.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5). Retrieved 5 October 2001, from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20 Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Wohlsen, M. (2016). Digital literacy is the key to the future, but we still don’t know what it meansWIRED. Retrieved 14 April 2016, from http://www.wired.com/2014/09/digital-literacy-key-future-still-don’t-know-means/

You do not need to have completed Lesson B to enjoy this lesson. If you haven’t completed it, you can use the following resources to help you in this lesson:

Let’s look at our sample topic for a critical comparison:

Compare and contrast how Wohlsen and Prensky define digital literacy and what role education should play in achieving it.

At one level, we can answer this with summary information about the content of the articles. But the challenge is not simply to repeat what the authors say about digital literacy and education, but to consider why they make the arguments they make and how they make them.

To do this, we need some tools for thinking critically. Step 1 is to practice with these tools to develop interesting critical commentary on the articles. In Step 2, we will be organizing all our critical commentary into relevant categories for the critical comparison essay.

Tools for Critical Response

Let’s begin with a progressive set of questions that you can apply to any argument you come across. These questions are designed to help you dig more deeply into the underlying logic and goals of any point of argument.

Critical Thinking Questions
  1. What argument does the author make?
  2. What evidence is used to support the argument?
  3. What assumptions lie behind the argument?
  4. What are the consequences or implications of the argument?

We can use Prensky as an example to illustrate how to apply these questions.

Critical Thinking Questions (Reference)
Critical Thinking Questions Explanation Examples – Critical thinking about Prensky
What is the point of argument? Describe a basic point of argument in the article. This could be the main argument or a smaller point within the discussion.

We have defined many of these as part of our summary work.

Here’s one point he argues:

He argues that “today’s students have changed radically,” so that the education system cannot meet their needs.

What evidence is used to support the argument? Writers can use different kinds of evidence to support their arguments and ideas.

Critical reading includes assessing what kinds of evidence a writer uses to support and argument.

We can look for three kinds of evidence:

Reasons are used to explain why something is needed or makes sense.

Examples can be used to illustrate key points.

Claims to the authority of other writers can be used to support ideas.

Let’s look at the evidence Prensky uses to support this point that today’s students have “changed radically.”

Reason:

Today’s students have “changed radically” because they have grown up with digital technology.

Example:

Prensky notes they have “spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, …. And all the other toys and tools of the digital age” and provides statistics on the number of hours in front of screens.

Claim to authority:

Prensky cites Dr. Perry to suggest that student brains have physically changed as a result of this exposure to technology.

What assumptions does the writer make as the basis of the argument? When making an argument a writer must begin somewhere. Any point of argument, however, depends on certain things being true.

A writer must make assumptions, and hope that the reader will agree to these assumptions.

When reading critically, we must consider not only the arguments being made, but also the assumptions on which those arguments are based.

If the assumptions don’t make sense, the argument will have its limits.

Prensky’s overall argument is that the older generation teachers have a responsibility to learn to teach in a suitable way for the younger generation of students.

His whole article is based on a key assumption:

That all younger people are fluent users of digital technology and that all older people use technology in a less fluent way.

Prensky assumes that the ability to use digital technology is a result of age, rather than a result of individual opportunity in life.

What do you think about this assumption? Is this true? Do you think all young people naturally have the digital literacy Prensky writes about?

What other factors do you think might shape our ability to use digital technology?

What are the consequences or implications of the arguments offered by the writer? Finally, critical thinking includes considering the consequences or implications of what a writer is arguing.

If a position on a particular social debate leads to detrimental consequences for some people, for example, then it needs to be considered.

Prensky assumes that all younger people are digital natives. We can identify several implications of this argument.

First, this idea hides the fact that younger students of different social classes or in different geographical areas may have different access to digital technology.

Second, his argument assumes that there is no value in holding on to ways of thinking and learning that exist before the pervasive use of digital technology. Is it possible that some of what the older generation has to say might be valuable?

These points and more are discussed in Henry Jenkin’s critical response to Prensky’s article “Reconsidering Digital Immigrants”.

Now it’s your turn. Practice applying the critical thinking questions to ideas from the Wohlsen article.

In the exercises below, you are given a point of argument from Wohlsen. Your task is to think about the evidence, assumptions behind, and implications of that point of argument. Enter your ideas into the boxes. Use the examples in the Critical Thinking Questions (Reference) as a guide.

Critical Thinking Questions (Sample Answers)
  1. Point of argument: Wohlsen argues that being able to use digital technology is not an effective measure of digital literacy; rather, that true digital literacy is in the ability to make the technology do what you want using skills in “computational thinking.”
    • Evidence:
      Reason – Digital literacy must include an understanding of the logic of coding because the next generation will need an active, rather than passive, relationship to the technology in order to succeed. In this reason, we can connect to Wohlsen’s motivation for the article. If we don’t define digital literacy in a useful way, we won’t give our students the tools they need going forward.
      Claim to authority – Wohlsen relies heavily on the ideas and statements of other experts to build his discussion. This suits the journalistic nature of his writing. For example: “Digital literacy, Smith said, also is about ‘how to make it do what you want.’ Or as Geshner put it: ‘Are you an iPad or are you a laptop? An iPad is designed for consumption.’ Literacy, as he described it, means moving beyond a passive relationship with technology. ‘When you get down to coding, you’re creating your own tools.’”
    • Assumptions:
      As part of his article, Wohlsen assumes that as a society it’s imperative that we define what digital literacy really means because this is how we will know what skills and tools our young people will need in the future. Here’s a quote to illustrate:

      “And how digital literacy is defined is important. This isn’t just about filling Silicon Valley jobs. It’s about educators, policy makers, and parents understanding how to give the rising generations of digital natives the tools they need to define the future of technology for themselves.” (Wohlsen)

      This is a crucial initial assumption for Wohlsen’s argument. And it goes even deeper. His motivation for writing this argument begins with this assumption that digital literacy can be defined – that it’s not an obvious concept. This assumption allows him to push the boundaries of how society understands digital literacy in order to change how we educate young people. We can, for example, now compare how Wohlsen and Prensky define digital literacy and the implications of those assumptions.

    • Consequences:
      As a result of his argument that digital literacy should be defined to focus on “computational thinking” rather than passive use of digital technology, Wohlsen is able to offer an argument for changes to the teaching and learning opportunities in schools. One implication of this argument is that we are forced to evaluate how digital technology and skills are taught and used in schools, thus leading to changes and innovations.
  2. Point of argument: Wohlsen argues that one problem with achieving digital literacy is that teachers do not, generally, have the skills needed to help students become digitally literate.
    • Evidence:
      Wohlsen cites different authorities and statistics on the limited offerings of computing courses and teacher professional development.
    • Assumptions:
      This point of argument assumes that it is generally teachers, and therefore, the education system that should be responsible for ensuring young people grow up digitally literate and able to succeed in a technology-dominated society.
    • Consequences:
      The consequence of this argument is that there could be a significant skill gap in those societies that do not revise their educational system to foster the kind of digital literacy Wohlsen is talking about.Do you agree with this argument? Do you agree with the assumptions behind it? How likely do you think this consequence of a skill gap is? How does this argument compare to Prensky’s call for teachers to develop new skills?

Download Sample Answers

Organizing the Key Categories

Thinking critically about the two articles is a form of brainstorming, gathering together many different points about the articles that will eventually be organized into a logical essay. Before we can proceed to writing this essay, we need to think about how to organize all this material.

Drawing on all our critical thinking, we can develop categories of information that allow us to group our points together in logical ways. Each reader will find different ways of doing this.

Consider the possible categories of information offered here. Do you agree with them? Do they make sense based on your reading and thinking critically about the two articles? Would you add anything different?

Define Categories of Information

Within each of these categories, we can group our ideas about each article, focusing on arguments, evidence, assumptions and consequences.

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