Dealing Critically with Reality

David Moscrop recently wrote in Maclean’s that “the right to speech is meaningless unless it is underwritten by a public that knows things—that is, an educated public.” However, in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes that education is not neutral; instead he states:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

Recently, the UBC Library hosted an open mic event on Freedom of Expression in the Post Truth Era and I had the opportunity to listen to amazing students, professors, librarians, and poets reflect on the state of truth and knowledge in today’s world. As I listened, I was reminded of Freire’s framing of education as a means to “deal critically with reality” – a framing that I think gets to right to the role of the university. If we are, indeed, in a post truth world, it’s not simply enough to read, learn, or know something, we also have to be able to critique and evaluate what it is and how we know it.

Lately, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about how to embed digital literacies into curriculum; put simply, how do we help students learn the skills needed to evaluate whether something is true or not? I often promote the pedagogical model known as the student as producer model. This model came out out of  a project at the University of Lincoln where they were shifting from research informed teaching to research engaged teaching; I partly interpret this as pushing the values and processes of research into the undergraduate curriculum. Why this model is important is that I think that many aspects inherent in research lend themselves to the sort of competencies involved in critique and digital literacies.

In his open textbook Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, Mike Caulfield outlines four strategies for getting closer to the truth of an online claim:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • Go upstream to the source: Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
  • Read laterally: Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
  • Circle back: If you get lost, or hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Or, as one faculty member at the open mic event succinctly framed it: “don’t be gullible and lazy.”

What I enjoy about these strategies is how common they are to research. Knowledge is not created in a vacuum and research is often a critique on the current understanding. Writing a literature review is an exercise in evaluating sources, following the discussion, and trying different search approaches to find additional context.  Publishing research is the act of creation and the act opening ourselves up to critique.  Embedding the values of research into teaching and learning embeds the processes of acquiring digital literacies into the student experience.

Martin Weller writes in his open textbook The Battle for Open that, increasingly, the narrative around the role of the university is “one of a straightforward investment  transaction –  students pay a certain fee, and in return they receive an education that will allow them to earn more money later in life.” However, if this becomes the prevailing role of the university, I think we all miss out. We must value inclusivity and empathy and we must also promote critique. We should question what we know and how we know it, so, as Freire wrote, education becomes the practice of freedom.


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