Critical thinking and reading are essential competencies for civic action in society. These skills have a special place also in national curricula and international assessments of literacy, such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). In daily life, these skills are highlighted in online environments, in particular, where critical evaluation of the quality and reliability of a source, for instance, is of primary importance.

The problematic issue of evaluation of information has been present on the Internet since its early days. Moreover, the ever-developing technology keeps providing unforeseen instruments for producing new contents and editing old ones.

Especially during the past decade, public discussion about the spreading of misleading and incorrect information has emerged strongly in the media. For example, we can remember Donald Trump’s communication during and before his presidency, when almost anything could be called fake news – including news that were not intended to mislead people, unlike the very purpose of fake news.

Mistrust toward research knowledge and the lack of critical literacy can already be seen in the communication of some Finnish politicians as well, and these are likely to become more prominent along with the spring elections.

Also the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has speeded the spreading of misinformation. For instance, there are claims that the global elite is behind all this and spreading the virus by means of the 5G technology, and that the vaccine includes a microchip by which individuals can be monitored and controlled. When forming their personal views and opinions, people should consider whether vaccines are one of the greatest inventions to promote health in society or just a method to control citizens.

As regards the intentional or unintentional distribution of misleading and incorrect information, a fertile ground for this is offered by people who uncritically believe such information and share their beliefs further. In spreading such misinformation, people take advantage of other people’s fears and perceived problems. At its worst, strong belief even in false information may lead to violence and sabotage.

Attention to the development of critical literacy among adults

The spreading of questionable information always undermines the position of correct knowledge and expertise.

Therefore, when encountering news that arouse strong reactions, we should stop and consider more closely the reliability and possible intentions of the source.

The underlying motives of emotive texts may be diverse – for example, political or commercial ones.

Although the need of critical literacy has been discussed a lot, there is still evident need for education in this area. In the latest PISA assessment, nearly 14 percent of the 15-year-olds reached but a weak level of reading literacy.

These students have insufficient skills for the evaluation of information in view of participation in society. In addition to young people, we should also pay attention to the development of critical literacy among adults.

According to an American study, it is middle-aged people, in particular, who are spreading incorrect information to a significant extent.

Year 2021 is chosen as the theme year of research knowledge. The aim is to make research knowledge more visible and accessible. As members of the university community, we all can contribute to these efforts. By sharing reliable research knowledge responding to citizens’ needs, we provide tools for fighting against misleading and incorrect information. We all can promote critical literacy.

Kaisa Leino works as a Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research. She is involved in various literacy studies (PISA, PIRLS, ICILS, PIAAC) and other projects related to multiliteracy.

Marjo Sirén works as a Project Researcher in PISA and PIRLS studies at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research. She is preparing her doctoral dissertation on critical literacy.


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