Every five years or so there is a push for society to adopt a new priority in education. A greater emphasis on math and science, more or less standardized testing, interdisciplinary studies, and service based learning are just some of the topics you may come across. Parents, educators, and academia struggle to pinpoint just what is the single most important thing for students to come away from school knowing.

So what is the most important thing for kids to learn these days? Is it any different than what was most important 10, 20, 50 years ago? I’d argue yes.

If you’re a teacher, this question on what’s crucial to learn is obviously one worth thinking about–it will guide your teaching philosophy. If you’re a parent, it is equally important because it will drive the way in which you model for your kids and perhaps contribute to what type of school system you put them in.The single greatest thing a student can come away with from high school is a twofold skill: the ability to find information and the ability to decipher if that information is credible. 

Here’s why.

First, I’ll mention why this priority is different than it would have been for other generations. We live in the Information Age. An unfathomable amount of information is on the internet that wasn’t nearly as accessible before. This much is obvious. We are globally connected to different cultures, people, and ideas in a way that just didn’t exist before. You literally can teach yourself to do just about anything by watching a video on Youtube (twice in the past year I’ve watched a video on how to tie a Windsor knot). But why is the ability to decipher credible information from bullshit so important? Because it encompasses everything. It informs us about what is true, what works, and what we should value.

The mother of a client of mine, in many ways, is a good mom. She’s an advocate for her child with special needs and fights with his school to get him proper accommodations. But one day, I overhear a serious conversation she’s having with a relative about how vaccines contribute/cause autism. You should be aware that her son has autism.  Here, in a nutshell, is one of the scary side effects  if people don’t learn how to think objectively and gauge if information is reliable. Vaccines don’t cause autism. There’s no legitimate source that has come close to replicating that erroneous study that came out. And yet, you probably have heard something or another about their relationship on the internet. Kids (and adults) can easily be swayed. Technology and the internet have made a few things possible: 1.) bad information can be as plentiful as good information on the internet and 2.) shitty information and theories can be made enticing and believable through artistic and savvy ways. All it takes is a fast-paced video with some good music to go viral on Facebook for a million people to come away believing the same erroneous message. And while that “message” may be harmless (Justin Bieber is a bad guy), it could just as well be important (who I should vote for). We live in a fast-paced time, where political snip-its formulate people’s entire opinion on political figures. Medicinal practices are deemed factual gold when so-and-so’s picture is plastered next to it. Judgments are made about entire countries and policies based on colorful Venn diagrams and graphs that can be experienced in Flash. Reputations are ruined over a single Twitter post. We are forced to become internet detectives, scouring through a cyber trashcan figuring out how to make sense of it all.

So how do you teach this skill?

It’s part scientific method, part raising a generation of kids who ruthlessly question and pursue the truth. Unfortunately, in doing this, we’re going to raise a whole lot of cynics. But that’s a whole lot better than breeding a generation of people who believe everything they read. Deciphering credible information is a skill needed in all aspects of life: what car to buy, what medicine (if any) should I give my kid, what values does that politician hold, world news, local news, does that author have an agenda, etc. Information–credible information–transcends all subjects. History, English, Science, Math, are all fields that rely on the written word and data-driven analysis.  I believe kids need to be taught how to quickly discern bullshit. They need to immediately recognize that they can’t entirely trust (or trust at all) Bob’s webpage on Economics and Sally’s blog about the causes of World War II. People constantly search the internet to confirm their preconceived ideas (confirmation bias) and it’s easy to do. I think this needs to be avoided if we want to stop perpetuating myths and speculation on everything from the existence of God to the value of eating organic. 

This ability to find and decipher information determines what we believe. I think this is the most important thing to learn because what you believe and why you believe it is the only thing that matters. If you have another idea of what’s the single, most important thing to learn, I’d be happy to read it in the comment section.