Discernment - the Ability to Judge Well

The further we progress into the 21st century the more strongly I feel the need for us to teach discernment. In fact, if I had to settle on one skill as crucial for our children beyond the basics of literacy and numeracy, I think this might be it. It fits within the Key Competency of Thinking, and it should be assuming ever greater importance. 

Nowadays we have Google in our pocket, we have constant access to information, and are pretty much constantly surrounded by “information”. We live in a print-saturated, image-saturated, talkback-saturated, social-connectivity-saturated, sound-saturated, video-saturated, environment. The numbers for Facebook, Twitter, Flicker, YouTube, and iTunes are mind-boggling in the extreme. 

On the face of it, Google in our pocket seems to be such a great benefit. But access to information should not be the main purpose – understanding information is the purpose. We need to look at how our children – and ourselves – are using Google. The pattern tends to be that most searchers sample the first link or two, and very few go past the first page or two. 

One of the biggest problems is that our children tend to believe whatever they find on the internet – “if it’s on the internet, it must be true.” 

American educator Alan November has shared some thought-provoking sessions on verifying what we find when we search on the web. whois.com is a useful tool recommended by Alan. He shares the search results from Google on “Doctor Martin Luther King”. On first look, the fourth entry on Google’s result page appears to be a considered, erudite review of the great man’s life. However, the further into that site you go, the more controversial and disparaging becomes the material, until it eventually leads children to a set of flyers they can print out and distribute in their community. The source of this web site is the Ku Klux Klan. You can guess their motives. 

We need to teach our children discernment – the ability to judge what is right. When faced with challenges outside our knowledge, we need the right tools and dispositions. 

It’s not “knowing the answer” anymore. It’s not even being able to find the answer. It’s knowing how to behave intelligently when I don’t know the answer. 

Previously we sought answers – usually simple and factual, to finite questions. Now our students are beginning to realise there is a difference between information and knowledge. One touches the surface – lands and sinks. One involves understanding – lands and generates ripples. 

The problem now is not access to information, nor is it the up-to-date-ness of information. Instead, the issue is truthfulness – reliability – usefulness – source. We need to look for slant – bias – hidden agenda.


This of course could and should lead to discussions on... What is news? What is newsworthy? Who decides? So consider this: if we don’t teach discernment to our children who will? If we don’t teach discernment to our children what might the resultant outcomes be? We need to be asking questions that Google doesn’t know the answer to. Finally, discernment is something we need to teach in partnership with parents. 

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