Critical Thinking Chat With Howard Rheingold

Rheingold's Model of Critical Thinking

Last night I sat in on a conversation with Howard Rheingold on Critical Thinking and have been perusing some of his many videos online.  I learned about the event through the #edchat community on Twitter and followed along on the accompanying #hrchat tag throughout the event. I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on what I learned out of the experience.

I think Howard's perspective on critical thinking is consicely summarized by what he describes as 21st Century Literacies. He defines "literacies" as a combination of skills and community.  While slightly different than the classical definition of "literacy", which refers to a person's ability to read and write, I think this is a powerful metaphor for the direction that education needs to take.  Borrowing the words of Lawerence Lessig, it moves the conversation about critical thinking from a "read only" culture to a "read-write" culture.  Indeed, I think this transition is very important and agree with Howard on the necessity of his five 21st Century Literacies:

#1: Attention

In order for any kind of learning to take place, the learner must focus to the knowledge to be acquired.  Indeed, if I not been paying attention to the discussion then I wouldn't have anything to be writing about here!  One of the things I liked about Howard's approach is that he doesn't seem to view social networking as a plague on the classroom, but rather recognizes that there can be a balance in attention between focus on a single task and multi-tasking.  Those attending the discussion know that in addition to the audio discussion taking place, there was also a chat room overflowing with information and a tweeter feed.  Attention works two ways: information is "read" from various sources and a "write" process takes place where attention is re-focused as necessary.

#2: Participation

I think one of the key features of critical thinking is that it is an active process, not a passive one.  It's not sufficient for me to simply watch and listen, but it is necessary for me to participate in the discussion.  If I were not to put my own thoughts forward in this post, I would be denied the experience of finding out how others react to what I might have to say. If I get something wrong here, I hope that someone out there will correct me!  The "read" process of participation is the act of reading or listening to information is essential, but the "write" process of producing new information is equally important.

#3: Cooperation

Like Howard, I value the importance of critical thinking in our culture.  By myself alone, I don't have the authority to make the cultural changes necessary to make critical thinking permeate the society at large.  Cooperation makes it possible for like minded individuals to achieve more than any one could do on his/her own.  The important first step is to come in social contact with these individuals to foster collaboration.  This is essentially the "read" component of cooperation.  Had it not been for my exposure to Twitter, I would likely have never known about the powerful learning community that exists there.  The "write" component of cooperation is the collaboration of multiple individuals to produce rich content like the discussion I experienced yesterday.

#4: Critical Consumption (Crap Detection)

The literacy of critical consumption, or "crap detection", seemed to be the major focal point of Howard's talk.  This is certainly a valuable skill in the 21st century as there is a lot of "crap" out there on the Internet.  The focus of Howard's Crap Detection 101" is on determining the validity of Internet sources.  The #hrchat discussion opened with a barrage of "fake" resources.  The process of determining which sources are reliable and which ones are not is mostly a "read" process.  Looking up the information provider in a search engine or querying WHOIS for the domain holder are some of the ways to identify where the information is coming from.  There's also a "write" component to critical consumption, and that is that the reliability of sources is also determined by a vetting process where other individuals vouch for the accuracy of a source.  As Howard notes, this vetting process for Internet sources is not quite as reliable as it was may have been for print sources.  The Internet does not contain a centralized review board that attempts to validify every webpage, blog and tweet.

#5: Network Awareness

Out of the 5 literacies, this is arguably the most vaguely defined.  Howard himself has suggested that this literacy may need a better name.  This notion of a "network" is a powerful concept in a variety of disciplines.  In mathematics, we have this notion of graphs which consist of multiple points connected by edges.  In computing, we have a notion of digital networks which are multiple computers connected by data tranmissions.  In sociology, we have social networks where multiple individuals are connected through communication.  In biology, we have neural networks which form the brain.  I think what Howard is getting at, is that in order for critical thinking to take place it is necessary to understand the context that learning is taking place in.  Learners in the 21st Century are connected through both digital and social networks, and understanding the architecture of those networks is necessary for actively participating in them.  I feel that the reason this is so important is that it is a foundation for metacognitition, the skill of critical thinkers to "think about thinking".  However, this literacy also contains a community of connections and it's the relation between ourselves and our connections that allows critical thinking to take place.  One of the points that Howard emphasizes is that, like the Internet, this learning network is decentralized.  There is no one single authority overseeing the entire network.

I'd like to propose an alternative term for this literacy and that is Swarm Intelligence.  Swarm Intelligence is much like the phenomena seen in ant colonies.  Each member of the swarm acts autonomously based on their own sensory information.  However, as large numbers of these individuals group together, the overall behavior of the swarm displays higher level behavior than any one individual.  Swarms are decentralized, self-organizing, intelligent agents.  Each agent "reads" information locally through senses and "writes" information locally by making decisions, but complex patterns emerge in the behavior of large numbers of these agents.  Swarm Intelligence allows for phenomena like "smart mobs" to take place.  I think the important point to be made about swarms is that the global behavior of the swarm can be changed radically by introducing "viral" changes in the behavior of individuals.  Knowing how changes in one's local behavior will affect the global behavior of the community is an essential part of critical thinking.

Refining Rheingold's Model

While I agree with the necessity of these 5 literacies, my main critique is that I feel there are 2 important literacies which are absent from this list.  In the discussion of Internet searches, Howard identifies two steps in the process of knowledge acquisition when using a search engine.  The first is to frame the question to come up with the search terms, and the second is to verify the legitimacy of the results.  My critique of this is that I feel this is only half the process of what I consider critical thinking to be.  In addition to searching for the answer and verifying the reputation of the discovered sources, I think that critical thinking also entails the process of making logical deductions from this information and scientifically testing the results.  I'd also argue that these processes are not just skills, but "literacies" in Howard's definition of the term.

Proposed #6: Logical Reasoning

Much of Howard's discussion focuses on how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information.  However, I think that this underemphasizes the importants of making the correct logical deductions from that information which has determined to be reliable.  To draw an analogy, "Critical Consumption" is to the "soundness" of an argument as "Logical Reasoning" is to the "validity" of an argument.  This is more than just "Participation" in that there is a clear distinction between what is true and what is false.  The simple act of participation is sufficient in the creation of art and music, but in fields like mathematics and philosophy there is a need for creation to be strictly restrained within the rules the rules of the system.  Logical reasoning is a skill that is used by an individual, but there is also a need for these logical deductions to be verified by the community.  One can "write" a proof, but it doesn't qualify as a proof until others "read" and verify it.  The importance of community involvement is evident in the history of mathematics and philosophy, but at the same time the truth of this information is independent of the author's reputation.  It's not true by an authority, but rather it is true because of the abstract nature of truth itself.

Proposed #7: Scientific Experimentation

The scientific method is arguably one of the most rigorous approaches to distinguishing truth from fiction.  To quote Steven Schafersman: "Critical thinking can be described as the scientific method applied by ordinary people to the ordinary world."  I've chosen to label this literacy as "Scientific Experimentation", to make a slight distinction between it and the "scientific method".  The scientific method is a specific skill, whereas what I'm attempting to describe is the combination of this skill with a community of experts.  "Scientific Experimentation Literacy" is cycle of experimentation, evaluation, publication and review that produces new scientific knowledge.  I feel that understanding how this process works is a crucial part of critical thinking.  Many steps in the scientific method are covered by the previous literacies.  Observation requires both "Attention" and "Critical Consumption".  Forming a hypothesis is an act of "Participation".  Experimentation requires an understanding of "Network Awareness", as the experimentor has a local influence on the phenomena being measured.  Data analysis requires an act of "Logical Reasoning".  Peer review is an act of "Cooperation".  Where I feel this literacy differs is in the act of forming conclusions.  While determining the legitimacy of sources is an important literacy, one is still ultimately taking the author's word for it.  As the old addage goes: "A lie is a lie even if everyone believes it and the truth is the truth even if no one believes it".  In contrast to logical arguments, scientific truth is not something abstract that can be known a priori.  The scientific experiment is the last line of defense for a critical thinker.  A well designed scientific experiment can prove even the most credible sources wrong.  Even the Standard Model of Physics is subject to revision, as we're beginning to see in experiments conducted with high energy particle accelerators.  This is different than "Network Awareness", or "Swarm Intelligence", in that there is a centralized authority on the true information, which we call Nature.  The scientific experiement "reads" data from Nature, and "writes" conclusions which are then verified by independent reproduction in the community.

What's the point of all these literacies?

One of the more vaguely answered questions in the #HRchat with Howard is how teachers should encourage critical thinking in the classroom. The general response was that critical thinking skills were implicit in everyday activities.  Tuesday's #edchat topic was on how teachers can assess critical thinking in the classroom, which also seemed to remain an open question.  While some may insist that critical thinking is not something that can be taught or assessed, I think that identifying these "critical thinking literacies" may provide a scaffold for allowing teachers to better address these problems.  Each of these literacies does cover certain skills which teachers can provide guidance on and possibly measure results in.  However, as Howard points out, it's the combination of these skills with learning communities that allows critical thinking to emerge.  By providing a combination of instruction in critical thinking skills with a community that supports the critical thinking process, maybe we as teachers can help a generation of critical thinkers to flourish.