Digital tools such as gaming can improve critical and analytical thinking.

Improving New Zealand's social and economic future by understanding how kids can become better thinkers in digital environments is the aim of a four-year study led by the University of Auckland.

A key finding is the need for New Zealand children to be better critical thinkers (reasoning and problem-solving) with better critical literacy, the art of seeing beyond words to the motivations that produced them.

Developing in Digital Worlds is being conducted by the Woolf Fisher Research Centre at the University's Faculty of Education and Social Work. It aims to contribute to improved youth education outcomes by accelerating national achievement through digital environments for four to 17-year-olds.

Centre director Professor Stuart McNaughton says the study began in 2014 with extensive research and work with a wide range of pre-schools, schools (including the Manaiakalani schools*), students, teachers and families – and is at the forefront of international research on a subject affecting countries around the world.

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McNaughton says New Zealand stands to benefit socially and economically from the study, funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, by applying some of the lessons learned from years of studying kids, as well as teachers and parent.

"We've seen that generally New Zealand children have a relatively low rate of critical thinking – one of the key assets people will need, along with critical literacy, in a digital future," he says

"We've also seen a low rate of what we call critical reasoning or argumentation – the ability to present an argument but then being able to understand someone else's position and reason out the best result from those various sources."

He says many New Zealand students typically take what information is on offer from teachers and then adopt a perspective they rigidly stick to.

"That is not the way of the present, let alone the future – it will need thinkers who go deeper than that, who are not only critical thinkers but who have empathy with other people, who are good collaborators with others. That's not only what's required from an economic success point of view but there is plenty of evidence to suggest it is also tied up with our wellbeing."

One area of the study involved an online discussion using Google Groups where students debated the environmental issues raised by pop star Taylor Swift filming at Bethells Beach, with particular reference to the effect on protected bird species there. Critical thinking was required to examine conflicting evidence and how information they were exposed to may have had particular agendas, motives and biases – an invaluable skill when sourcing material from the internet.

Despite encouragement to search the wider internet for research, most students tended to work with the resources teachers gave them. However, one young girl downloaded a map of the area, demonstrating how far the filming was from the protected birds.

This showed, says McNaughton, schools had a tendency to teach persuasive skills (like essays and presentations) but not necessarily critical discussion which take counter-arguments and dissenting evidence into account to reach a better informed conclusion.

The study also showed how using digital tools to engage students freed teachers to "do what is quintessentially human about teaching – engaging in dialogue and elaborative exchanges and being able to promote aspects like critical thinking and literacy," says McNaughton.

The idea is not to introduce technology for the sake of it, nor alter the curricula or introduce critical thinking periods, but to weave it into the fabric of what teachers do every day to accelerate achievement.

McNaughton says there are three main reasons for applying the study's findings and boosting students' critical and analytical abilities: "The first is equity. The digital divide usually refers to lack of access to the tools for some (usually in low decile schools). It can also mean some students simply don't have the same quality of curriculum and teaching resources through and with digital tools. With these results, we can design major interventions to overcome these sorts of disparities.

"The second is excellence. Increasing all children's cognitive abilities has an educational and ultimately societal significance; for example, we know the workplace needs people who are good at oblique thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and interaction with others.

"But it works in our social space as well; the empathy and consideration for others inherent in thinking which takes other's perspectives into account also plays well into issues like our bad cyber-bullying record and youth mental health issues. There could be a big advantage there."

Finally, he says, New Zealand has a real opportunity to innovate in this area as studies like these can be world-leading in identifying and designing better links between teaching, family and digital (including game-based) learning to achieve better outcomes.

"We are a small country but we are agile enough to test these ideas out and contribute markedly, not just to our financial capital, but our social capital. If we get this right, we will be able to contribute to children entering society with more advanced cognitive and social skills.

"In terms of economic benefit, we know that the cognitive and social skills of the type we are talking about play into national productivity."

McNaughton says the research is ongoing while the centre outlines early findings.
"We are disseminating a lot of what we have found out now but we're not finished yet because the questions keep changing as you go through the process."

*The Manaiakalani schools are a cluster of low decile schools in Auckland who share the vision to lead future- focused learning in connected communities using digital technology.