Aleksandra Mangus, MIL specialist and contributing expert to SALTO Participation and Information Resource Centre

1. Introduction

We live in the ‘information age’. Our young people are surrounded by information coming from all sorts of directions and wrapped in all sorts of packaging. Every day a young person spends more than a third of their free time consuming, interacting with and producing media—an important indicator when it comes to thinking about what young people’s priorities are today. At this stage of life, their minds demand maximum social interaction—a psychological requirement of young age. It is the time when people tend to have the greatest number of friends and close connections. It is the time of transition from high school to university, which brings with it a dramatic expansion in social circle. It is also the time when people are at their most vulnerable: seeking attention, acceptance and approval of their thoughts and actions. The search for belonging is a process that can lead them to the wrong places. Often unable to deal with their own feelings, young people have an even harder time when exposed to hate speech, mocking, cyberbullying and radical/extremist content. Lack of life experience and knowledge open the way for young people’s minds to be manipulated without them realising what is going on. Therefore, it is very important that young people have certain skills and techniques to understand that what they are seeing is not necessarily what they should believe in and that they need to be a little more disciplined in sorting out the information they receive and what they take from it. Two of those skills are critical thinking and media literacy, two skills which are very closely intertwined. Let’s look at what each of them is, how they can impact young people’s lives and how youth workers can help develop these skills inside and outside the classroom.

2. The origins of critical thinking

What would you say might be the connection between you, young people and ancient Greece? The answer lies in the practice of critical thinking and in the legacy of a very wise Greek philosopher. Socrates, from whom we know his dialogues and circles, wanted to make each person the master of their own mind and being using questions to examine his students for their values, principles and beliefs, which he called ‘Socratic Method’. He maintained that only the knowledgeable and those with true understanding, along with self-developed reasoning, can survive the onslaught of persuasion, eloquence and authority. This influenced the development of critical thinking as Socrates’ students developed self-regulating knowledge and the ability to regulate their own thoughts through appropriate and repeated questioning (Douglas, 2014). It lends itself well to demonstrating the complexity, difficulty and uncertainty of the word. Since critical thinking skills cannot be taught directly, they can be engaged and cultivated through the Socratic method (Lam, 2011). Using the Socratic method in the classroom and giving students questions rather than answers can force students’ thinking and the creation of logical connections in their existing knowledge and experience.

There are two versions of Socratic Method that we know today: the classical, and the modern. In Maxwell’s introduction to the Socratic method and its impact on critical thinking, we learn that the difference between the two lies in their purpose. In the classical Socratic method, participants are prepared to think and improve themselves through better understanding. The process behind this first version aims to deconstruct people’s previous understanding so that they are less sure of what they knew before or to help them become aware of their ignorance about a particular topic in the first place—to help them know what they don’t know.

The second modern version of Socratic Method sets up a situation where students are not ignorant and where they know the answer. This method carries a person step by step, and knowledge is gained by asking more and more questions. Students challenge their own ideas and thus develop their critical thinking. An added benefit of both types of the Socratic method is that they draw the student and teacher into an intimacy that cannot be achieved through lecture, as both become active participants in the teaching and learning process (Knox, 1998).

In The Socratic Method: What it is and How to Use it in the Classroom, you can read the experiences of a Stanford ‘Socratic’ professor (Reich, 2003). Essentially, the article explains the components of the Socratic method and lists nine useful tips for using it in the classroom.

3. Critical thinking in perceiving media

Once critical thinking was established as “an ability to examine and analyse information and ideas in order to understand and assess their values and assumptions, rather than simply taking propositions at face value” (UNESCO, 2013), how would you say it connects to our understanding of media today? There is more than one direct answer. In fact, there are five ways we can look at it according to the NW Center for Excellence in Media Literacy (College of Education, University of Washington):

  • All media are carefully wrapped packages
    As carefully wrapped packages, the messages are ‘wrapped’ with enormous effort and expense, even though they appear quite natural to the audience. Media texts are the product of careful manipulation of constructive elements, at both an obvious and a subtle level. At an obvious level, constructions such as drawings, colours and headlines may be used. At a subtle level, constructions such as appeals (generalisation appeal or appeal to emotion) may be used. Young people need to develop the skill of looking beneath the surface of media messages to see how they are constructed.
  • Media construct versions of reality
    Audiences tend to accept media texts as natural versions of events and ideas, when in fact they are only representations of events and ideas. The reality we see in media texts is a constructed reality, built for us by the people who made the media text. Young people need to develop the skill of interpreting texts so that they can tell the difference between reality and textual versions of reality.
  • Media are interpreted through individual lenses
    Audiences interact with media texts in their own individual ways. Some audiences accept some messages at face value. Other audiences may reject the same text, disagree with its message or find it objectionable. Yet other audiences, not certain if they have embraced or rejected the text, will try to come to terms with it by negotiating. Audiences who negotiate with a text might ask questions, seek out other people’s opinions or try several interpretations or reactions the same way we try on new clothes—to see how they suit us. Young people need to be open to multiple interpretations of texts and aware that a reaction to a text is a product of both the text itself and everything the audience brings to the text in terms of their accumulated life experience.
  • Media are about money
    • Modern media are expensive to produce. Producers need to make back their investment by marketing their product to audiences.
    • One of the main purposes of the media is to promote consumerism. While we enjoy many of the products of media, such as magazines, we need to be aware that some media texts are created to deliver an audience to advertisers rather than to deliver texts to audiences. Others may use consumerism as a secondary motive.
    • With increasing regularity, four or five massive communications conglomerates dominate media production facilities, such as newspaper/book/magazine publishers and TV/film production and distribution companies. Young people need to be aware of the implications of media’s commercial agenda and how ‘convergence’ affects media and their contents.
  • Media promote agenda
    The very fact that some people object to some media texts is proof that those texts contain value messages. Most media texts are targeted to an audience that can be identified by its values or ideology (belief system). Detecting the ideological and values agenda of media texts is an important skill in media analysis.

Looking at the five ideas described above, it can be quite perplexing for a young person to grasp these concepts and find their own way in dealing with the challenges presented. Therefore, the skill that comes to the fore is media literacy, or rather media and information literacy, as experts explain today (UNESCO, p.27).

4. Defining Media and Information Literacy

“We live in a world of almost total mediation,” states renowned British writer and media education researcher David Buckingham (2018). “New challenges have emerged, for example in relation to ‘fake news’, online abuse and threats to privacy; while older concerns – for example about propaganda, pornography and media ‘addiction’ – have taken on new forms. The global media environment is now dominated by a very small number of near monopoly providers, like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, who control the most widely used media platforms and services, and yet whose power is much less overt and visible than the power of older ‘mass media’ corporations. We all need to think critically about how media work, how they represent the world and how they are produced and used”.

In the scope of today’s technology-saturated reality, media literacy, as the concept with roots in media and civic studies, is not sufficient enough. Being contributors to information exchange via media, we cannot overstate the importance of the missing part: information literacy, as access to information, the evaluation, creation and dissemination of information and knowledge, using various tools, formats and channels. Therefore, it is important to emphasise the term Media and Information Literacy (MIL), defined as “a set of competencies that empowers citizens to access, retrieve, understand, evaluate and use, to create as well as share information and media content in all formats, using various tools, in a critical, ethical and effective way, in order to participate and engage in personal, professional and societal activities” (UNESCO). The ultimate goal of MIL is to empower people to exercise their universal rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of opinion and expression, and to use the opportunities available in the most effective, inclusive, ethical and efficient manner for the benefit of all individuals. A media and information literate person is able to distinguish between reliable sources of information, determine the role of media in culture and be responsible for their understanding of the influence of mass communication as they move between media platforms. MIL skills in particular are those that are fostered to address societal challenges, such as misinformation and disinformation, extremism, cyberbullying and hate speech on the Internet as well as cybercrime of various kinds (sextortion, data theft, violation of human rights, etc.).

Critical thinking and media and information literacy have a combined impact on human behaviour. When a person with a critical mind is exposed to shocking news, they do not jump to conclusions, nor do they react by immediately sharing the news with others before questioning the information given, but rather they seek verification and the logic behind the news. A person with a critical mind is also able to assess the rationale behind the choice of format, timing and mode of communication. At a time when the media is so influenced and controlled by political agendas, a critical approach to the information we consume helps us to form our own opinions and resist attempts to be deceived by questionable sources.

5. Consequences of being media illiterate

Generally speaking, the biggest problem is that people do not understand what they are looking at. Part of the problem is that they may not understand that they are looking at a piece of information designed to get them to carry out bad actions or to believe in things that are dangerous, which may lead them to violence. For example, when we talk about the people who become terrorists or extremists, often they listen to the information they believe to be true. It is therefore important that when information comes to them, they understand that they need to interrogate this information closely to make sure they are not being told something that may be bad for them or their community.

Alternatively, messages can mislead the young reader to think that they have gained or missed an opportunity urging them to commit financially right then and there. In criminal cases, when done particularly well, messages can target the deep emotions and feelings young people tend to hide, driving them to harmful actions. Sad examples of these are sexual perpetrators stalking and harassing their victims to extort money (what is otherwise called sextortion) and online game challenges leading to suicides (read a BBC article about Blue Whale challenge).

6. How to be media literate?

Responsibility for the security of information in the media lies with both the media source and the recipient. Media should be professional, but more clearly people should be able to distinguish media products from those of extremists and those telling stories. Media is important to show the people receiving the information that what they are getting is genuine and that they can tell what is professional media and what is propaganda. Professional journalists are trained to research each story properly, to use more than one source, to not believe the first person they hear and to check other sources and facts leading up to the story. These are the same criteria young audiences need to apply when they hear or see something. Where does it come from? What source? More than one source? Is there somewhere I can get more information? Are the facts accurate? When they think in this way, young people learn to listen (focus on what is being said, and on what is not), analyse (look more closely and separate the main components of the message), evaluate (examine different claims and arguments for validity), explain (consider evidence and claims together), and self-regulate (consider their pre-existing thoughts on the topic and any biases they may have) (Facione, 1990).

It is also important to watch out for and recognise the times when we become victims of cognitive distortions. Cognitive Distortions: What They Are and Why They Happen by Very Verified presents the most common biases – confirmation and familiarity biases – along with a few examples, which are easy to relate to.

To guide your practice, you can use a list of questions to ask your young people when thinking critically about the piece of content at hand:

1) Questions on the industry: Who is in charge? What do they want of me? Why? What else do they want?

2) Questions on the product: What kind of text (genre) is this? How is the message constructed?

3) Questions on the audience: Who is this intended for? What assumptions does the text make about the audience? Who am I supposed to be in relation to this text?

4) Questions on the values: How real is the text? Where do I find the meaning? How? What values are presented? What is the commercial message? What is the ideology of the text? What social/political/artistic messages does the text contain?

5) Questions on predisposition: Do I agree or disagree with the text’s message? Do I argue or negotiate with the message in the text?

6) Questions on the skills: What skills do I need to apply to this text? How do I deconstruct/reconstruct this text? What new skills does this text demand from me?

7) Questions for yourself as the information receiver: What does it all mean to me in the end?

Most importantly, it is crucial to ask, “how do I know that?” each time you arrive at the answer to any of the questions above to avoid assumptions and false conclusions.

7. How youth work develops critical thinking and media literacy

The impact that a skilled youth worker can have on the development of critical thinking and media literacy in young people is hard to underestimate, especially in an informal learning environment. In school, young people are often restricted in the use of their mobile phones, depriving them of the natural environment of tools and technologies available to them to work with information. There may be opposing views on whether this is good or not, but the fact remains the same: while they are restricted in the use of their devices, they are not in the same environment in which they should know how to use skills in real time. In this sense, informal youth work environments can be much more flexible, allowing and encouraging the use of media, creating more realistic and valuable learning experiences. For example, youth can share examples from their own newsfeed as case studies for discussion or begin creating content directly in class using the tools and apps available to them. In addition, out-of-school environments foster an alternative personal dynamic, which often affords young people an easier way to express their views and make a valuable contribution.

You may be wondering now how critical thinking can be taught in classroom/outside of it? Here are four general recommendations to stay on the right course (Buckingham, 2018):

  1. We should be asking questions about the various ‘languages’ of media – the forms of grammar or rhetoric they employ.
  2. We should be looking at representation – at how different social groups are represented and how they represent themselves in these online spaces.
  3. We should be looking at the changing institutional structures and economic strategies of new media companies.
  4. We should be looking critically at how people engage with these media – albeit perhaps more as ‘users’ than as ‘audiences’.
8. Practical examples of youth work activities

It is important to contextualise the teaching of critical thinking and media and information literacy. Below are some examples of real-life practices implemented across Europe, for different audiences from pupils to youth workers, , with links to resources you can access and download.

Evidence digging

“We need to equip young people with the right questions to ask when they come across information that they are not sure about,” states Alex Clegg, Communities Coordinator at Sense About Science, an independent charity that champions public interest in sound science and ensures evidence is recognised in public life and policy-making. “At Sense about Science we have developed these questions since 2017, working with children, educators and youth group leaders around the UK to develop an out-of-school Evidence Hunter activity pack to encourage critical thinking, as part of our Ask for Evidence campaign. All you will need to run through the activities is a print-out of the pack and a set of counters or tokens, such as Post-It notes. The pack includes guidance on the different types of evidence and how you can help your group think critically about the claims they might encounter in day-to-day life. These resources empower young people by equipping them to ask, ‘What is the evidence behind this claim?’ We co-created the Evidence Hunter activity pack with scout groups and it has since been taken up by other youth organisations across the UK, including girl-guiding groups, holiday and after-school clubs, and parents groups.”

Discussing images

What’s Going On in This Picture? (WGOITP? activity) is a feature of The New York Times, which invites teachers and students to use a bank of 40 intriguing images, all stripped of their captions or context, to practice visual thinking and close reading skills by holding a discussion or writing activity. There is also a workshop on how to use the WGOITP? activity, a lesson plan and a new Picture Prompt feature to get students writing, thinking, speaking and listening.

Tackling information disorder

Democratic School Chatrooms are a regional initiative started by the ‘Quality education for all’ actions from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. The goal of these chatrooms is to acquaint students with competences for democratic culture through topics that are relevant to them. The actions have organised five chatrooms on topics such as the challenges of online learning, human rights, empathy and a culture of non-violence in the school environment. Their latest chatroom focused on the crucial significance of critical thinking in the times of information disorder. It involved a group of 24 students from secondary schools tasked with employing their critical thinking and analytical skills, conducting research and finding out which information had been manipulated and which was true. A media literacy expert who moderated this event introduced the students to methodologies, strategies and online tools, in particular those with regard to photo forensics.

Fighting hate speech

No Hate School, organised in Macedonia every year by the Center for Intercultural Dialogue (CID), has become one of the most meaningful events related to the No Hate Speech Movement. The No Hate School gathers educators, youth workers, researchers and practitioners in the field of youth together to learn about hate speech and hate crime and to design local action plans that are later implemented throughout the year. Its aim is to equip participants with tools on how to proactively engage in combating hate speech in their communities and multiply their gathered knowledge. The programme of the school is tailored to suit the needs of participants in the Macedonian context. The first part addresses the issue of human rights, understanding hate speech and hate crime; the participants explore the legislation in Macedonia and the institutional response towards hate speech and hate crime. In the second part, the participants develop their competences to recognise hate speech and explore various tools for combatting it; they work on ways to create alternative narratives and actively promote critical thinking to youth.

Additionally, you may find it useful to check out this Manual For Combating Hate Speech Online Through Human Rights Education (2020) by the No Hate Speech movement. It gives practical advice on critical thinking and information processing along with a list of questions to ask when checking the argumentation, searching for information, checking the authority and sharing content (pages 186-189).

Confronting stereotypes

The Media Literacy and Critical Thinking in Youth Work Project gathered young leaders and peer educators in Antalieptė, Lithuania, to create the right environment for young people to be critical thinkers and, essentially, to be unafraid to speak out. One of the activities at the event was named “I was told”, which invited participants to share a situation when they heard a story from someone and did not check the facts behind it, trusting the information given, which led them to spread the disinformation. To hear from the organisers and the young people about what they have gained through the experience, you can watch this inspiring video from the event.

Thinking about the dark episodes in human history

Teaching about such atrocities as the Holocaust is not easy; educators often face challenges when addressing these topics in the classroom. However, it is not enough to just teach ‘about’ it, educators also have a responsibility to teach for the prevention of such atrocities. The training resource ‘From reflection to action: critical thinking approach to education for prevention of radicalization and crimes against humanity’ was developed as part of the Council of Europe’s Pestalozzi Programme ‘train the trainer’ module on the prevention of crimes against humanity in 2016/2017. It presents the issues around teaching about radicalisation and its prevention. It explores the ways in which teachers can provide information about the causes, contexts and consequences of the Nazi regime so that such atrocities are prevented in the future. The activities in this training module encourage participants to think critically and reflectively about dark episodes in human history in order to educate for prevention. This training module includes a total of eleven activities divided into three subsections, each of which can be used independently.

Filmmaking for local awareness

The Exceed the Wall Project by two Baltic NGOs involved workshops and school activities to introduce the short film format to young Estonians and Latvians as a tool to showcase their ideas and thoughts to friends and other youngsters. The aim was to develop young people’s critical thinking, to make them notice the good and bad sides of the local community and to inspire them to take the initiative in order to make something better and start something new. The intention behind filmmaking was to present the short films the youngsters had made to the decision-makers and local communities to show that young people cared about local problems and want to change them. The films prompted different age groups to start dialogue and discuss common issues (Compendium of best practices, pp 41-45).

Media competence for youth workers

Eleven NGOs from Latvia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, France, Malta, Greece, Ukraine, Georgia and the Russian Federation gathered youth workers in 2016 for a one-week training course “Analyse and think critically: media literacy for youth workers’ in Taevaskoja, Estonia. There, they aimed to develop participants’ analytical skills and media literacy, focusing on gaining experience in using media analysis tools and integrating the learning outcomes into their daily work with young people. The project emphasised critical thinking and media content analysis. It promoted the professional development of youth workers by addressing one of the key issues affecting intercultural and international relations: the construction of social representations, i.e. how different groups of people perceive and are perceived by others. During the practical workshops, participants learned how to identify bias in the information they receive from the media and how to teach young people to analyse media texts with a critical eye. Participants went through a series of workshops where they received detailed information about different fallacies and a non-formal logic approach on the one hand; on the other hand, they worked on a series of exercises on how to recognise and distinguish types of fallacies. More about the structure of the activities can be found in the Compendium of best practices, pp 45-54.

9. Instead of a Conclusion

Teaching critical thinking and media literacy has never been easy, nor has it ever been more necessary than it is today. To meet this demand, youth workers should make sense of dialogic debate rather than getting students to agree to a predefined position on an issue. They should try to use key concepts to ask difficult questions of the media and also of themselves. The variety of approaches, such as reflecting on media content and creating new artefacts, can make the learning experience very practical and immersive, while a safe and open space for sharing opinions and thoughts can free young people to think, lift their spirits and make a meaningful contribution. If you’re motivated to get your hands on the best resources for educators, you’ll find an impressive collection of inspiring practises, lesson plans, articles and digital tools for exploring critical thinking and media literacy in SALTO’s Participation Pool.

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  6. The Greater Good Berkeley Magazine: What Teens Gain When They Contribute to Their Social Groups. 22.07.2019. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_teens_gain_when_they_contribute_to_their_social_groups
  7. Maxwell, Max (2014), “Introduction to the Socratic Method and its Effect on Critical Thinking,” The Socratic Method Research Portal. Retrieved from: http://www.socraticmethod.net/
  8. NW Center for Excellence in Media Literacy, College of Education, University of Washington: Media Literacy Through Critical Thinking: Teacher Materials by Worsnop C. Retrieved from: https://depts.washington.edu/nwmedia/sections/nw_center/curriculum_docs/teach_combine.pdf
  9. BBC, Blue Whale: What is the truth behind an online ‘suicide challenge’? Article from 13.01.2019 by Ant Adeane. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-46505722
  10. Facione, A (1990) Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. Research Findings and Recommendations. American Philosophical Association, Newark, Del. Retrieved from: https://philpapers.org/archive/FACCTA.pdf
  11. UNESCO (2013) Global Media and Information Literacy Assessment Framework: country readiness and competencies. Retrieved from: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000224655.page=22
  12. Buckingham, D (2018) Going Critical: On the Problems and the Necessity of Media Criticism Medienkritik im digitalen Zeitalter [Media Criticism in the Digital Age], edited by Horst Niesyto and Heinz Moser, Co-Paed (Munich). Retrieved from: https://ddbuckingham.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/going-critical.pdf
  13. Alex Clegg (2020) Empowered for Life: Critical Thinking for Young People. Retrieved from: https://infolit.org.uk/empowered-for-life-critical-thinking-for-young-people/
  14. Compendium of Best Example Projects Selected by The Project Partners of the “Aware and Active – AAA” Project http://www.awareandactive.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Annex1_Compendium-pf-the-best-practices_FINAL.pdf

The cover image was designed by young Estonian artist Margaret Pütsepp.

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