Dispelling Myths, Fake News and the role of Critical Thinking

Photo by Michail Sapiton on Unsplash

Let’s face it, we (the human race) are rather good at labels. We label everything and we excel at making general assumptions, generalisations and branding individuals or groups depending on their likes, dislikes, looks, race, sex, music choice, clothes with perhaps the biggest label of all (although this is subjective) being date of birth.

In fact, age is probably where the most interesting of labels has been taking shape with the different generations being labelled as far back as the 1920’s when Karl Mannheim wrote the ‘Theory of Generations’.

“According to Mannheim, people are significantly influenced by the socio-historical environment (notable events that involve them actively) of their youth; giving rise, based on shared experience, to social cohorts that in their turn influence events that shape future generations.”

I’ll make my own assumption that at some point you have seen the different generations as described below:

  • Baby Boomers – Born 1946 to 1964
  • Generation X - Born 1965 to 1976
  • Generation Y (Millenials) - Born 1977 to 1995.
  • Generation Z (iGen) - Born 1996 and later.

There have been countless articles and research on the characteristics each of these generations has, how they behave, how they communicate, how they want to be managed, how they want to work, how they use technology..... etc

I’ve been caught up in the generation generalisation myself and I am certain that most HR and L&D teams will be having the ‘How do we manage/meet the needs of 4 different generations in the workplace’ conversation at some point. It may be that your recruitment, on-boarding, training offering, performance management approach and working environments are all under scrutiny to meet the needs of the tech savvy digital natives entering our work forces. Sound familiar?

Digital natives are those who have been born in the era of technology and high speed internet. Dubbed the ‘Always-On’ generation, what these young and fresh faced individuals want and expect from work is vastly different to previous generations.

Or so 'they' say.....but who says 'it'? Thorough research, people’s experience or the voice of the digital natives themselves? Is it anecdotal or actual evidence that is presented as factual evidence? Fake news is nothing new and depending on the source or how often you hear the same thing or similar it can become ‘fact’ very quickly – it doesn’t make it right though.

What we hear through the media and through our social channels & connections can feel right because we can see the logic and so because it makes sense to us we believe it. Why wouldn’t those born in an era of technology have different characteristics, desires and needs to those who were born in an era of the type writer and dial up internet?

There are lots of examples where fake news influences how we think and what we believe, take learning styles as an example. We all learn differently and depending on our preferences we might (according to Honey & Mumford) be an activitist, reflector, pragmatist or a theorist. Despite there being no shred of scientific evidence that learning styles are real they have become a big part of education and learning design. Learning styles are in the fabric of what many in L&D believe to be true, despite there being no facts or evidence to support it.

Another more recent example was the treatment of Justin Gatlin at the World Championships in London. Gatlin was booed at every opportunity and has been branded as a ‘two times drug cheat’ by the media and has become the pantomime baddy vs the golden boy that is Usain Bolt. Has anyone checked the facts or is it another example of us believing what we see in the media and assuming it must be correct as it has been published? We develop beliefs, take actions and exhibit behaviours on what we see and hear, without often questioning why. Dig deeper or take the time to explore a wider range of sources and what you find may throw a very different light on the ‘facts’ presented. Read an alternative article on Justin Gatlin's 'drug cheating' here.

Information is served up to all of us at an exponential rate as a recent study has shown. “The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California-San Diego, under Roger Bon, according to the British “Times of London” and “Telegraph”, believes that people are every day inundated with the equivalent amount of 34 Gb (gigabytes) of information, a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop within a week.”

The scary thing is that most of this information is filtered (by ourselves or through machine algorithms) and presented in our own personal echo chambers. In other words, as social beings we surround ourselves with people who share similar beliefs and opinions. Take more notice of your Facebook feed over the next few days. What you see will be based on what you have liked, what you comment on and what you have shared. When you start delving deeper in to the social stream and what information you see and consume it can be quite eye-opening. It’s important we are aware of this and do not accept what we see and hear blindly.

Returning to the case in point.

Digital natives are....

  • -        different in the way they use technology
  • -        able to multi-task
  • -        in need of different things as employees
  • -        in need of being managed differently
  • -        used to games & gaming so we’ve got to gamify everything
  • -        using smart phones so we’ve got to create a mobile app or design for mobile.

These may be a few of the things you’ve heard or read over the last few months and even years. The smart phone debate is another one  to take note of, and whilst they can be used in such a positive way there is a much darker side to smart phone use in children and mental health as this very interesting read shows - have smart phones destroyed a generation?

HR and L&D specific, you may have heard the above statements at industry shows or more likely through suppliers – many of whom are trying to sell you the next big solution to meet the needs of this tech savvy generation.

As I’m writing this, I can’t help but think that all generations need the ability to critical evaluate the information out there, to be curious in our adventures and to question & challenge what we see and hear. Fundamentally, we need to make up our own opinions and not just accept what we are provided with. The world is rife with propaganda and fake news, more so now than ever before but because it comes through our ‘safe’ social channels or tycoon backed media outlets, it doesn’t feel damaging or wrong. Be wary of what you read and don’t accept it because it feels right or that other people are saying it as well. Constantly challenge and develop those critical thinking skills. Check out this great cheat sheet on Critical Thinking.

So, before you re-design your next employee initiative or develop your next learning intervention to meet the needs of digital natives (or any generation) think it through carefully. Focus on the experience you want to provide and what you want the outcomes to be rather than it being driven by characteristics or a wish list for a generation that is essentially a myth. It’s down to us all to ensure that the myth doesn’t become a reality for all the wrong reasons.

This post was inspired by research I came across in this article ‘The Myth of the Digital Native’ and through subsequent conversations with my networks and colleagues here at DPG.

I’d very much appreciate your own views on this topic from fake news, to social echo chambers and our ability to think critically. I’d also welcome your own views on the generations and your own experience of any ‘digital natives’ you know – like your own kids or siblings (if you have them).

Thanks for reading!

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  • I've come across another useful post on Critical Thinking.

    5 Characteristics of a Critical Thinker - how many do you demonstrate?


    Five Characteristics of a Critical Thinker
    A journalist taught me about critical thinking in writing and editing. The importance of vetting and uncovering more than one side to a story. This i…
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