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It’s Critical: Reading and Thinking Well in a Complex World

 In Recent Articles, Blog

by Sarah Butler

It was easier when we were young. When the news came to the door each morning and was on three or four channels on our TVs a few times a day. When we went to the library to look for a book or journal article, perhaps combing the card catalog, then searching the periodical guides, which would lead us to microfiche which we magnified on a reader. A few years later, we relied on computers within libraries to aid our searches for those newspapers, magazines, journals, and books. Technology made finding those items easier, but it didn’t change the volume of what was available.

It’s different now. Today, we google first. We take our thumbs to our phones or fingers to our keyboards and tap out terms that we hope lead us to truth:

When did the Berlin wall fall?
Growing pumpkins
Video games and violence
News about shooting in _________
Causes of autism

Our kids have faster fingers than ours. They can, it seems, find anything online, although the quality can be questionable. Years of teaching young people about how to do research for their writing reveals that while kids can tap in terms on their devices, they are often poor at choosing those terms and at sorting through what they find. At best, they are told their source is not acceptable for an assignment. At worst, they follow a stream of misinformation which they come to believe.

And of course they struggle. We ALL struggle. The amount of information available grows daily. As much as Google and other search engines try to help one sort, it’s still hard. Finding a good source, now more than ever, requires exceptionally honed critical reading and critical thinking skills, along with strong analytical skills. Even in the most gifted kids, these don’t come naturally. They take practice. They require patience. They take awareness of bias — their own and the bias of their sources. They take checking and checking again.

Online G3 addresses this struggle in several ways. Our history classes, from the Horrible Histories through the Advanced US and World History classes, discuss the veracity and validity of sources, primary and secondary. Our writing classes, especially Writing With Sources, a class focusing on source use and academic writing, directly address how to find and vet sources. Literature and Linguistic classes explore the intersection of language, history, and human experience. All our classes require critical reading skills: Kids need to know not just what is worth reading but also what it’s really saying. They need analytical tools as well, as a strong critical reader can break down what’s said and parse the ideas making up the bigger piece of writing.

How does this look in the Online G3 classroom? In our literature classes, tools of analysis are applied in the webinars. Literary techniques raise awareness of the complexity and beauty of a piece of writing, but a bigger view of the piece is also discussed. How does this novel fit into the time in which it was written? What does this story tell us about our world today? Are their warnings, reassurances, or timeless lessons in a book or poem or short story?

In the writing classes, analysis again follows critical and careful reading. Forum posts and classroom conversations help young people sort out what is under and between the words on the page: Is a narrative just an interesting story, or is it commenting on a time, a place, an idea? Like with literature, they learn to ask what worries of the time led this author to write this piece? Why is the argument structured the way it is in an essay? What’s accomplished? And perhaps, most importantly now, who wrote this and why? What was the agenda behind it? Is the rhetoric fair and strong and reliant on facts, with strong analysis only occurring after the facts are established?

History and Government classes also aid development of critical reading and thinking skills. History is far more than memorization of names, dates, and places (although that’s how many of us learned it) — it’s a living thing, as the past echos into the present and can resound in our future.  History — taught with attention to sources, point of view, and motivations — is a proverbial gold mine of opportunities to see the complexity of the world and sort out not just where we have been as humans but where we might go. Understanding the future demands a clear look at the past. Government puts history in the now: We are living in a time when engagement in our government is a must for all. If we don’t understand how and why our government was created, we fail to understand where and when it works, when it doesn’t, and how to right the wrongs committed by our forefathers through the political leaders at all levels today. Government is history as it is happening, and it takes excellent critical readers and critical thinkers to appreciate the links between the two and make a better world for us all.

Beyond those staples, Online G3 offers other opportunities to think and read critically while learning to understand our complex world. Psychology classes help students understand not just what people think and feel and do but why they think and feel and do. Linguistics leads learners to explore language itself — how it works now and in the past and why that matters. The new Uncharted Territory workshops are six-week opportunities to explore the issues that are important to teens:  Power, Identity, Decisions, and Credo, but they are also opportunities to think critically, read closely, and analyze writing and ideas through multiple lenses.

To sort out fact from fiction, to understand motivation and bias, to appreciate argumentation, to learn from the arc of our human history, to write with clarity and correctness, and to simply grow into a citizen of a time, nation, and world, it’s crucial for all of us to hone our critical reading and thinking skills. Online G3 classes foster those skills and help young people learn how to analyze the information once they understand it. We’re here to help the next generation become thoughtful learners empowered with the tools they need to manage today’s onslaught of information and to prepare them for whatever comes next.

Sarah Butler is also known as Coach Cordelia at  She teaches writing at G3.

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