Critical Thinking and Social Media Technology

With the emergence of social media technology in the classroom, teachers are finding innovative ways to promote student learning. As educators become more sophisticated in terms of utilizing Internet and mobile-based technologies to share information, they are taking advantage of new and exciting opportunities to improve their teaching practice. One particular area of interest to me is the way in which this sort of technology might improve the critical thinking skills of high school students.

Perhaps the most difficult task for a high school teacher is promoting critical thinking in the classroom. As students navigate through the giant web of state-mandated curriculum and federal testing requirements, many of them fail to develop the thinking skills necessary to succeed in college and the work world beyond high school. By graduation, high school students find themselves disinterested and unprepared. Perhaps this is why recent studies have shown American students not only lack the basic skills necessary to be successful in today’s global economy but too often they graduate from high school lacking the most important skill: creativity.

As I understand it, the creative student has highly developed critical thinking skills and is able to formulate relevant questions. The obvious importance of critical thinking to student success is not only confirmed by educational research but by the experience of business and community leaders too. In fact, a recent study, Ready to Innovate, found that the ability to think critically about problems and find creative solutions are the most important attributes business leaders look for when evaluating candidates. According to the business leaders surveyed in the study, creative thinking involves, at a certain level, that a person exhibit such things as curiosity, the ability to recognize new patterns of information, integrate knowledge across disciplines, and, most importantly, the ability to identify problems. Perhaps the most important aspect of these skills, in terms of promoting critical thinking in high school, is the ability of the learner to formulate meaningful questions and articulate thoughtful answers.

Unfortunately, many high school teachers fail to promote this type of thinking. A brief visit to a typical high school classroom will prove as much. Students sit quietly in desks, rarely engaged, while the teacher lectures about state-mandated curriculum with the expectation that the students will reproduce the material on the soon to be taken multiple-choice exam. Perhaps this is why American students lack the critical thinking skills necessary to compete in today’s global economy.

The author Tony Wagner thoughtfully analyzes this problem in his recent book The Global Achievement Gap. According to Wagner, all too often public school teachers fail to develop the types of skills normally associated with critical thinking, particularly the skills that enable students to ask good questions.

One important way for high school teachers to promote critical thinking in the classroom is by simply encouraging students to ask good questions. Effective questioning techniques help students analyze academic problems. By asking appropriate questions, students find themselves able to identify problems and, with some guidance, articulating solutions. Utilizing social media technology to stimulate and manage classroom discussions presents an interesting and, perhaps, effective way to accomplish this.

Taking advantage of social media technology to facilitate discussion can make it possible for students to explore the multifaceted nature of academic problems in a way that is normally difficult to achieve in a traditional classroom setting. Where the usual high school curriculum presents standardized information in preparation for year-end mandated exams, this technology may enable high school teachers to foster critical thinking by enabling them to build unique learning situations in which students explore complex academic topics. Moreover, by utilizing the innovative networking features associated with this technology, students can share ideas, work with other students to solve complex problems, and improve their ability to ask thoughtful questions.

The four types of social media technology that seem most promising in this regard are weblogs, podcasts, wikis, and Twitter. What make these types of social media technology so promising are their accessibility to both teachers and students, wide-spread use in both education and the private sector, and their relevancy to students. Moreover, because these technologies can be used to foster unique technology-based interactions between students and teachers, they present a wonderful opportunity for educators to develop meaningful student-to-student and teacher-to-student discussions. These discussions, of course, represent opportunities for students to develop better thinking skills as they work to understand complex information and formulate thoughtful questions and responses.

There are certainly challenges to using this technology in a typical high school classroom, however. Perhaps the biggest challenge with social media technology is its newness, if you will. Although teachers are experimenting with different ways to use this technology to foster critical thinking and build collaborative teamwork in the classroom, the success so far is limited at best. This means teachers interested in utilizing social media technology are left with few examples of best practices to follow.

The inherent complexity that results from integrating different types of social media technology with traditional high school curriculum presents significant challenges also. Utilizing social networking tools (e.g., Facebook or MySpace) in conjunction with collaboration (e.g., wikis) and multimedia tools (e.g., Flikr or YouTube) is a very difficult task for a high school teacher who has limited experience with this type of technology.

There are other challenges that should be noted. Often basic technology limitations (e.g., lack of resources, school policy, etc.) make it difficult to utilize social media technology in the classroom. Another problem is this technology requires a significant investment in terms of training and resources if teachers are to effectively design and manage learning activities. Perhaps the most challenging limitation for a high school teacher is time. Is it reasonable to expect high school teachers to spend countless hours developing specific learning activities that use social media technology when they are already strapped for time?

At this point I’d like to hear from you. For those teachers or administrators who utilize social media technology in the classroom, please provide your thoughts. Has this technology enabled you to improve student learning? Has it helped your students develop the skills necessary to ask good questions and, more importantly, think critically about academic topics? Have you found it difficult to create projects or curriculum that require integrating two or more of these programs at the same time? I’m looking forward to your comments.

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Tags: 2.0, Achievement, Critical, Facebook, Gap, Global, The, Thinking, Tony, Twitter, More…Wagner, Web, blogs, media, podcast, social, technology, wiki

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