Academia is one of our most important institutions, vital to our ability to understand the world and how we fit into it. On a national level, education bolsters our democracy by allowing us firsthand accounts of the past. This makes it so we can can copy what worked well and avoid what didn’t.
Threats to our democracy
Currently, a major threat to our democracy is the spread of misinformation, escalating at lightning speed through social media. Through the pandemic, we have all experienced just how prevalent misinformation can be, and the danger it poses.
In recent years, misinformation has run rampant on many different platforms, all over the world. A study by MIT found that false information is 70% more likely to be retweeted than true information. This is probably because people are drawn to information that is shocking and sensational, as false information is often presented.
Misinformation can have debilitating effects. For evidence, you need only look to the countless fake, and often dangerous coronavirus cures sprouting up all over social media. Drinking bleach will not ward off covid, but it will likely get you a stay in the hospital.
While this is certainly a very extreme example, even more subtle misinformation can have severe consequences. It can compel people to buy faulty products, lead to increased political polarization, and cause distrust of science. It undermines truth and threatens democracy. So, what can be done to combat misinformation?
It starts with education
One of the most powerful tools we have to combat misinformation is critical thinking. Education plays a crucial role in developing this skill. On a personal level, education is key, not only, to success, but true growth. In an ideal world, this would foster a sense of curiosity and a drive for excellence.
For some students, our current system of education accomplishes this, but our institutions fail many more in the process. Read on to discover ways that schools and institutions are working to improve education and the role that technology plays in this.
Critical thinking is essential
High-quality education doesn’t just rely on reciting facts; it pushes students to analyze, question, contemplate, connect, criticize, and expand. It doesn’t tell students what to think but teaches them how to think. With a strong background in critical thinking and comfort with research, people are much less susceptible to misinformation.
Unfortunately, sometimes memorization producing correct answers are prioritized at the expense of developing more expansive thinking skills. Because digitized education can adapt to meet the needs of individual students, it could be a helpful tool for developing critical thinking skills. There are even virtual educational resources that directly work to teach students how to identify false information.
The role of technology
In Bill Gates’ end-of-year post, he predicts that the future of education will be increasingly digitized. “Unlike offices, schools will go back to only in-person instruction except maybe for some limited remote options for older high school students. What will change, though, is how we use digital tools to enhance the way kids learn.” Additionally, he states that “we’re starting to see that curriculum become more responsive as demand goes up, and it will only become more tailored to the individual needs of students and teachers in the years ahead. The intention is that these new tools will supplement classroom learning rather than replace it.”
While in-person instruction is necessary, digital tools have the potential to better personalize education and push students to think more deeply. Technology also has the potential to greatly increase access to high-quality education.
Addressing inequality in education
In a separate post, Gates cites that algebra is the most failed course in high school. He explains that this is extremely problematic because it's also one of the biggest predictors of future success. “Students who pass Algebra 1 by the end of 9th grade open the door to advanced STEM courses and AP classes, and are more likely to enroll in college, graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and go on to well-paid, in-demand careers,” he relays.
In addition, this is an obstacle that disproportionately affects people from marginalized communities, such as Black, Latino, and ELL students, as well as students experiencing poverty. The Gates Foundation recently funded 11 organizations, each taking a unique approach to combat this issue all around the globe.
One of these organizations that he highlights is Zearn, an educational nonprofit that is behind the widely used Zearn Math curriculum for elementary schools. Through collaboration with students, they are working to develop a middle school curriculum that will promote inclusivity and set students up for success in Algebra 1. Their goal is to make this preparation more engaging by providing a dynamic and interactive learning experience that will help students make sense of the information.
Overall, by pushing our global educational institutions to be better, we can improve the lives of millions. Misinformation poses a constant threat to our everyday lives, and on a broader level, to our democracy. But we can combat this threat through high-quality education that places emphasis on critical thinking skills.
Educational companies and foundations, especially those focusing on pushing educational technologies forward and on increasing the accessibility of high-quality education, will play a crucial role in the development of younger generations.