November 23, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Challenge Authority! | Teen Guides to Thinking Critically

Let’s face it. By the time our students are in their teens, they begin to develop a healthy dose of skepticism. And if we are doing our jobs, we should be applauding them. Friends, family, and the media have all been known to espouse views or state facts that they can’t back up with evidence. Several recent books examine some of the myths and misinformation the public has been exposed to and encourage (and coach) teens to think critically.

debunk1In John Grant’s Debunk It!: How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation (Zest, 2015; Gr 9 Up), the author discusses myths spread by bloggers, politicians, talking heads, pundits, and those who believe and repeat them without questioning. He describes some of the dangers of disseminating misinformation; defines logical fallacies, such as ad hominem or straw man attacks; and gives a basic explanation of the scientific method. Once teens are armed with a healthy sense of skepticism, Grant moves on to tear apart some of what he considers to be the worst examples: creationism, alternative medicine, the claim that vaccines lead to autism, and climate change denial, among others. Teens will appreciate the author’s brutal honesty and snarky tone, as well as his liberal use of the term bullshit (to describe distorted or fabricated info). However, Grant never stoops to merely mocking those he believes to be spreading erroneous information, instead using logic and evidence to dismantle poor arguments piece by piece. The author’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, and students will appreciate both his style and substance.

bad for youKevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham take a more visual approach to the subject in Bad for You: Exposing the Campaign Against Fun. A Graphic Investigation. (Holt, 2013; Gr 8 Up). The book is packed with a variety of black-and-white illustrations, including graphic panels, maps, and charts (by Pyle), that look at centuries worth of myths and, in some cases, lies parents and kids have been told about nursery tales, dice, and more. For example, who knew to what extent some adults and the U.S. government went to correlate comic books to crime and tried to regulate (and ban) them during the years 1948 to 1955? During this period, comic book burning occurred across the nation; one person behind that campaign was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who claimed that “as long as the crime comic books industry exists in its present form there are no secure homes.” Pyle and Cunningham discuss the scientific method (which Wertham never used) and cite other, tangential studies on comic books that turn Wertham’s theories upside down. Societal fears about the effects of the “Harry Potter” books, games, technology, and play are considered in the same manner. Classroom uses for this title abound.

eyes wide open Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines (Candlewick, 2014; Gr 7 Up) by Paul Fleischman provides another lesson on questioning authority, recognizing bias, and vetting sources. Rather than simply offering the typical, kid-friendly ways to save the Earth, the author explores the political and economic roots of the ecological crisis, addressing not just the scientific but the social. Fleischman has written an empowering call to action, stirring young people to challenge assumptions, examine the biases of companies and politicians, and, ultimately, think for themselves. In an interview the author noted, “the ability to look critically at information sources is crucial.” “My goal wasn’t telling kids what to do but giving them the understanding that would be a foundation for action. I thought of my best teachers: the ones who made surprising connections between the past and the present, who picked out general principles behind the mass of facts. I searched for the roots of the environmental crunch we’re in and the roots of our difficulty in dealing with it…. I had to remind myself that this would likely be the first time that readers would look critically at their own economic and political systems…. The world needs teens’ out-of-the-box thinking here.”

These three books are guaranteed to open students’ eyes and minds and will make outstanding additions to units on science, current events, and debate.

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