This is an updated version of a post published in 2012.
How do you encourage pupils and students to think critically in the context of educational technology? Although we can devote a lot of time and energy to setting up the "right environment", I can't help thinking that really it all comes down to some pretty simple questions, and very straightforward approaches.
First, as a general rule, the teacher needs to encourage a critical approach by walking the talk. That means being open to an other-than-expected answer from students. All too often, a teacher will ask a question, and go round the class until they get the "right" answer.
To take a really simple example, if you ask a class what sort of software you would use to write a letter, how do you respond to a child who answers "a spreadsheet"? It would be good to know why they think that. It could be a lack of knowledge, or it could be a completely mistaken set of assumptions. On the other hand, it could be a logical idea.
I, for example, do not write letters using a spreadsheet. I do, however, create my invoices in a spreadsheet and then, if I wish to include a covering note or some additional information, put that in the invoice spreadsheet rather than in a word-processed letter. It saves time and is, for the recipient, much more efficient than having two different documents to look at.
Another example might be to ask the class what sort of code they would use to test for a particular condition. For instance, Do...While, Do.. Until, or something else? You might believe there is one correct way to achieve the goal, but you may be wrong. Or a pupil who suggests the right answer might have done so for the wrong reasons.
So the second thing to do is to always ask "Why?". And not just once. When the answer comes, ask “Why?” again. Imagine this sort of exchange:
Teacher: How can you prevent other people opening your documents?
Student: Use a password.
T: Why would that make it secure?
S: Because people wouldn’t know what the password was.
T: Why not?
S: Because you would use personal information.
T: Why would that make the password secure?
You could take this sort of conversation in several directions, eliciting issues such as not using information that others can easily guess, or not leaving yourself logged in so that someone doesn’t even need to know your password. The point is that by asking “Why?"/Why not?” you’re making it clear that the answer given isn’t good enough because it still leaves room for doubt.
A big objection to this sort of approach will be that there is no time, that if you did that for every topic you’d never get through the syllabus. I don’t believe this to be the case because that assumes that the students don’t change. They do. Once they realise that you won’t let them get away with any old un-thought-though answer, they will start to think more carefully before answering. They will start to ask themselves the “Why?” question and the “How do you know?” question (see below).
In any case, if the whole point of having a syllabus, and lessons, is that the students learn stuff, what’s the point of getting through it in such a way that they don’t learn? The “we don’t have time” argument implicitly assumes that learning the content of the course is more important than learning how to think about the content. The students need both. (In this regard, see Steve Wheeler’s article, A dangerous game.)
Third, ask “How do you know?” Apply this in the same way as the “why?” question, especially to information sources or people, and the (implied) challenge, “Prove it!”. I always took the view that if I could get my students to not even believe me unless I had given them good reason to, I had done a good job.
Fourth, find some good resources and, fifth, develop good activities to go with them.
Bottom line: adopt the view espoused by George Bernard Shaw, Ambrose Bierce and others, that in any situation a cynical view is likely to prove justified!