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April 10, 2019

Learning to See the evidence: A CHAT WITH kEVIN GUTHRIE

How do we learn to evaluate something truly new?

According to Kevin Guthrie, president of ITHAKA, it is an old problem. Each new technology challenges viewers to find the right way to see it, understand it, and judge its reliability. This is just as true for adults scrolling through multimedia news as it is for students in a global e-classroom.

Speaking to a gathering of international educators, all interested in teaching digital literacy and critical thinking to today’s students, Guthrie offered an example from Scotland in 1893.  A photographer trying to promote his studio published a photo of dozens of famous people in Scotland, seen as if at one densely-packed VIP gathering. (Below left.) Guthrie pointed to one head that is massive compared to the others, shadows going in every direction, and other oddities that would raise red flags for today’s photo-savvy viewers.

This 1893 composite photograph by George Washington Wilson fooled viewers in its day. (Source below)

“We would recognize immediately this is not real,” said Guthrie. “But when this picture was released, people did not have that context. Some people had never seen photos before. They were literally amazed that they had gotten all those people together.”

The point: new technology demands a moment’s pause and then a new set of questions.

Guthrie describes himself as an optimist and believes that the solution is critical thinking. Teachers can guide their students to pause and consider a few key questions. 

“I think the main thing is that you have to slow students down,” said Guthrie. “In these viral moments, what happens is that the information you're getting is going right into your eyes, into your heart, into your emotion, never passing through your brain. There's no time for that. It appeals to people viscerally.”

In a contemporary example, a video appears to show President Barack Obama speaking. In fact, the face and the speech are simulated to show the “president” saying whatever an actor pronounces—a deception that is hard to detect at first glance, especially without knowing that technology makes this fakery possible. (See video at page top for this example.)

If we can get students to just ask one of those questions, it will be a start.
— Kevin Guthrie

“We have to get people to slow down and then we have to give them the tools around things like authority, bias, content. So when we see ‘Obama’ speaking and saying something that seems completely inconsistent with who we think he is, we have to ask: where is this coming from? What's the site? Who's putting this up? Why are they putting it up? Why would it be there? What's trying to happen? If we can get our students to just ask one of those questions it will be a start. If we can get them to just slow down long enough to have a chance of asking those questions, I think it will be a start.”

In the Global Scholars World of Water curriculum, critical thinking comes into the spotlight in unit 4, as students read a local news story about climate change, distinguish facts from opinions in the story, and practice using evidence to support their own arguments. This exercise can reveal potential biases, such as a predisposition to agree with arguments that one’s friends endorse. Guthrie warned about the trap of seeking evidence to “prove” a pre-determined conclusion.

From the 2018-19 Global Scholars Student Workbook: World of Water

“One of the things that's so important for all of us as educators to teach is that we want evidence to lead to the conclusion,” said Guthrie. “We want evidence to lead to the argument. And too often the argument is out there searching for the evidence.”

Guthrie spoke on January 31, 2019 in New York City at the Global Cities Symposium: Global Competency in a Changing World: Developing and Assessing Student Learning Outcomes.

Critical Thinking is one of 9 learning outcomes described in Evaluating Global Digital Education: Student Outcomes Framework, co-published by Global Cities, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and OECD.

Read more about student learning outcomes

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Photo source: George Washington Wilson (British, Grampian (Baffshire), Scotland 1823-1893 Aberdeen, Scotland). Aberdeen Portraits No. 1. 1857. Artstor, library.artstor.org/asset/SS7731421_7731421_11777812

Kevin Guthrie is president of ITHAKA (www.ithaka.org), a not-for-profit organization that works with the global higher education community to advance and preserve knowledge and to improve teaching and learning through the use of digital technologies.