In 2015 and 2016, researchers asked 348 high school students in the US to complete five tasks determining whether a set of social media posts and articles on issues ranging from gun laws to climate change were reliable and trustworthy.
The team behind the study, part of Stanford University’s History Education Group (HEG) thought the tasks, designed to be tests of critical thinking online, were straightforward. But they soon realized that most students lacked the basic ability to recognize credible information or partisan junk online. “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word,” they wrote in their report.“Bleak.”
In 2017, researchers attempted to repeat the experiment in Finland with a group of 42 high schoolers who were about to enter a two-year international high school program geared towards university preparation, and 25 students who were about to graduate from it. (The majority of students were Finnish, with some coming from outside the country.) Using an evaluation grid developed by HGE, the researchers rated the students’ ability to use critical thinking as “beginning,” “emerging,” and “mastery.”
Across all five tasks, the students in Finland had “consistently superior outcomes” than their American peers.
For example, when it came to choosing which poster in a social media conversation about gun laws was more evidence-based, 61% of US high schoolers in the Stanford study were classed as “beginners,” essentially failing at the task. In Finland, 38% of students about to enter the pre-university program, and 56% of students graduating from it, got “mastery” level on the task.
The study authors attribute the difference in performance in part to the way the international high school program in Finland teaches and prioritizes critical thinking skills. Unlike the California curriculum, the high school program curriculum explicitly ties critical thinking skills into other subjects, and focuses exclusively on the skill in a course called Theory of Knowledge. “The curriculum in the US,” on the other hand, “embeds critical thinking only implicitly into subject coursework.”
They conclude that “facilitating critical thinking as a course separate from subject area integration reveal stronger outcomes.” They also note that in a recent study (pdf) on global civic and citizenship engagement, 82% of Finnish teachers said that promoting “independent and critical thinking” was one of their most important goals, the highest percentage of any participating country.
The study has limitations, particularly in its sample of students. The Stanford study assessed 348 high-schoolers from diverse school districts, but the Finnish study only assessed 67 students who were not nationally representative and who, in the researchers’ own words, “perform above average within a country that already produces learners who perform above international average.” It’s perhaps not that surprising, then, that some of Finland’s top students outperformed a group of high-schoolers in California.
In addition, Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford University, founder of HEG, and one of the co-authors of the Stanford study, has expressed concerns about comparing the two research projects. He noted that the tasks has been validated as indicators of student thinking for the US, not for Finland. And he added that, because the scores of the students had been evaluated by two different teams, he couldn’t “rule out the possibility that the differences in scores were the product of differences in scoring by the two teams.”
But the study could hold lessons for a US education system that has been slow to integrate media literacy and critical thinking courses into teaching, and to adapt to the threat of fake news. For Shane Horn, one of the co-authors of the Finnish study, the message for classroom teachers of any subject is: “Teach critical thinking in your class, and teach the skills explicitly.”
This story was updated with comment from Sam Wineburg and to clarify that some of the students in Finland were international.