System 2: Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking is the Core of Media Literacy

NAMLE's Thinking

The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) puts the teaching of critical thinking at the top of its guidelines for media literacy education:

  1. Media Literacy Education requires active inquiry and critical thinking about the messages we receive and create.

The reasons given for this primacy by NAMLE are (comments added):

  • All media messages are “constructed.” ... Media messages are produced for particular purposes. All media messages contain embedded values and points of view. - Media is placed by actors with purposes that may not be explicit.

  • Each medium has ... a unique “language” of construction. - Unrecognized or uninterpreted cues may be missed or subconsciously processed.

  • People ... construct their own meanings from media messages. Media and media messages can influence beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, and the democratic process. - It is in the interests of students, and in the national interest, that we see media as potent manipulative tools, and use critical thinking to fend off its manipulation.

NAMLE offers the following (paraphrased) implications for Media Literacy Education (MLE). Students should:

  • Become adept at discovery and inquiry-based learning.

  • Use document-based evidence and well-reasoned arguments to support their conclusions.

  • Learn the skills to critically analyze media for themselves (be informed by, but not reliant on, presented analyses).

  • Identify evidence for, sources of, and impacts of bias in media messages.

  • Push personal biases to investigate all media messages, not just those with which we may disagree.

Our Thinking

Critical thinking is a complex blend of analysis, synthesis and evaluation skills, informed by content and context knowledge. Trained educators will recognize these top-of-the-pyramid Bloom's skills. A constructivist teaching model, using discovery and inquiry learning, acknowledges what this work requires, both of student preparation and of instructional time (constructivism happens on students schedules, not bell schedules).

However, educational objectives that target the bottom-half of Bloom's Taxonomy pyramid can (and should, for the sake of time) be met using more efficient methods, like direct (explicit) instruction. It would be mistaken to imagine that media literacy education is constructivist education, but instructional approaches that rely only on direct teaching are unlikely to produce the habits of mind that critical thinkers bring from classrooms to adult life.

Resisting Misinformation Requires A Mindful Intent

The ability to evaluate digital content is a necessary but not sufficient requirement to combat misinformation. We must also interrupt our scrolling through the algorithmic feeds and triggers that serve social media business models. In the hypnagogic state Daniel Kahneman calls “System 1” , we are easily manipulated, with little agency, little capacity to know what’s true or needed. To resist the urge to click and share what we have not yet understood or verified, we need to engage what Kahneman calls “System 2” (critical thinking).

But System 2 is extra effort, one we do not generally plan to make when we scroll as a “break” from hard thinking of “assigned work”. Students need to be shown the dangers of scrolling-for-relaxation, just as they are shown the dangers of driving for fun, particularly when combining that with drinking or texting, which also suggest themselves when we look for that flowing feeling of floating downstream.