Preparing for our future – the need for critical thinking

Guest post by Dave Coplin, Director for Bing UK, Microsoft.



We live in incredible times.  Today, many of us walk around with more computing power in our pockets than used to sit on our desks just a few short years ago. We are more connected, more engaged and more in control of our lives than ever before and yet, incredible though it is to believe, we are still right at the very beginning of our society’s journey with technology.

We have learned to love (or in some cases, tolerate) the power of social media and the increasingly real-time nature of our world. The power of the internet and mobile technology has enabled us to live with and access an incredible range of data, information and services that offer us the capability of augmenting all of our real-world experiences, joining the digital and analogue worlds together, in order to help us to become greater than the sum of our own parts.

There has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools.  Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”.  Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology.  Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.

Over the next twenty years, the increasingly connected nature of every action and every “thing”, combined with technological developments like the incredible prevalence of screens, e-ink and display surfaces and natural interfaces (those that use a range of human interaction from typing and mechanical devices like the mouse through to more natural methods involving gestures, speech and even thought), will take us to a new level of reliance and integration of technology. However, there are still some crucial obstacles that remain in our way, blocking our ability to take advantage of the advances on offer.

Some of these challenges exist at a cultural level, with privacy being perhaps the most fundamental of all such sociological debates. However, often hidden beyond such issues are significant barriers pertaining to the spread of knowledge and literacy that, if left unheeded, weaken the very foundations of our society (and economy).


None of these challenges are new, in fact a great deal can be learnt from our past. As such, the four key challenges we face should be familiar:

  • Helping others exploit the potential of access to unlimited knowledge
  • Providing equality of access
  • Curating the wisdom of others
  • Preserving our knowledge heritage

Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars, it provides a powerful framework for our internet age as every single day we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially.  These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in one of a billion haystacks.

Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it.  Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Fortunately for many of us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it becomes something we simply cannot take for granted.

From an early age, we need to ensure that anyone using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:

  • Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.
  • Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.
  • Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.
  • Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount
  • Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.

Where we need help now is not in the squabbling on the frontline of the digital/analogue boundary debating about which tools we should be teaching but is instead around the core principles of extending knowledge and literacy in a modern society, ensuring that, like our ancestors before us, our greatest knowledge assets (both digital and analogue) do not succumb to the ravages of time; that people can find relevant information in a vast ocean of content – ultimately finding a needle in a billion haystacks; ensuring that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings us. It should not just be a case of feeding them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool and ensuring that every single member of our society, regardless of location, background, skills and wealth, can benefit from all that is on offer.

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