Teaching critical thinking in a ‘post-truth’ world

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 Sam Jenkins

Back in November 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose their word of the year: the adjective post-truth, defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. 2016 saw a real spike in usage last year, particularly in its relevance to political debates over the EU Referendum in the United Kingdom and the Presidential Election in the United States. Previous highlights from their selections include 2013’s winner, selfie, or perhaps the 2005 winner, sudoku, both of which crazes that capture a particular reflection of a year gone by. However, at the moment it would seem there is a bit more to the idea of post-truth that warrants exploring from an education standpoint.

Teaching critical thinking in a ‘post-truth’ world

As an issue that is only set to become more relevant over time, the idea of post-truth politics represents an important challenge and opportunity for the education industry to engage with students on the matter of critical thinking. Equipping young people with the tools to identify, construct, and evaluate arguments takes on a new importance in the context of polarising issues in our society. Rather than shy away from talking about these issues, we ought to encourage an environment where students can not only develop an understanding of debates that have had a profound impact on society, but can begin to feel comfortable in formulating their own views and expressing their own ideas.

One of the most common things that can lead to students losing focus in education is the inability to understand the subject. This can often lead to neglecting homework tasks or failing to contribute to classes. If we fail to focus on the process of understanding a problem, through critical thinking, then students might not be best placed to make sense of what is going on in the world around them.

Teaching critical thinking in a ‘post-truth’ world

This does not mean that critical thinking requires an in-depth understanding of the big issues in current affairs. There are many sources of stimulus that represent opportunities for students to practice their critical thinking that do not compel teachers and tutors to focus exclusively on the trending news stories of today; any kind of creative problem solving is a brilliant opportunity to channel your students’ creative juices! Whether you want to challenge your students to pretend they are stranded on a desert island, or have them work as a team to pitch a business idea as the next big thing, these kinds of tasks represent opportunities for students to work on their ability to understand a challenge, and think about the merits and drawbacks of a particular approach. Making sure that students are effective team workers is worthwhile and relevant to this kind of approach, as you can allow your students to learn to meaningfully listen to and engage with the ideas of other members of their group.

The benefit of equipping students with the skills to be good problem solvers is huge, given the demands of today’s workplaces for solving non-routine problems. No matter what kind of aspirations young people have today, the ability to effectively reflect on a new or difficult situation or to discuss with a team multiple answers to the same problem, or to reflect on their own achievements and strive to improve in certain areas, the ability to think critically is hugely beneficial.

This key aspects is perhaps part of the shift in education practices to focus less on codified, routine, and testable skills towards a focus on overcoming non-routine cognitive challenges. In this way we are embracing an approach to the lifelong process of learning and making sure that the students of today are in the best position to realise their potential, no matter what path they choose. Perhaps the pertinence of issues of post-truth in current affairs ought to serve as an opportunity to make sure that our learning processes are geared towards helping students become active members of our society, in whatever way, shape, or form interests them.


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