Autonomous Learning Requires Critical Thinking Skills: Conspiracy Theories in the Classroom

Teaching critical thinking skills is more important than ever; young people have access to an ocean of information and learning resources like never before, but the quality of that information is often dubious (sometimes constituting deliberate misinformation).

If our focus on self-regulated learning and increasing learner autonomy is often will and motivation, we ask “how can we get young learners to be passionate about educating themselves?”, “how can we inspire our students to seize the reins and master their own destiny when it comes to education?” and, more fundamentally, “how can students learn without dependence on schools and teachers?”. There is a danger that if we respond to these important questions without arming learners with the critical thinking skills required: they will learn a lot, but they will learn a lot of unfiltered, unsafe, untruths.

Critical thinking skills are, therefore, an essential component of self-regulated learning and autonomous learning.

Conspiracy Theories in the Classroom

Let’s take the example of conspiracy theories and conspiracy style thinking: a phenomenon that has gained huge momentum this year that has been fuelled, in part, by maladaptive autonomous learning behaviours. In fact there are many other forms of misinformation, fake-news and “dodgy thinking” that haunt the internet, waiting to ensnare young minds.

This year has seen an apparent rise in the uptake of dangerous conspiracy theories in both young people and (perhaps especially) in older generations: this represents a failure of the education system. In the case of public-health crises and climate change. This failure has and will continue to cost lives as people – harmful behaviours (such as failing to social distance or failing to live more environmentally harmonious lifestyles) are being fuelled by misinformation, lazy or irrational thinking, and, ironically, a style of autonomous learning that lacks nuance and skill.

Conspiracy theories have been described by some philosophers as “epistemic black-holes”, well-meaning truth-seekers (potentially your students) are sucked into the black-hole never to be heard from again: but believers in conspiracy theories believe they have researched the matters thoroughly, logically, and gone on an ‘autonomous learning journey’ in a reasonable and beneficial way. Much they have “learnt” through their autonomous learning is misinformation, nonsense and often downright propaganda. How can we prevent this process recurring in the next generation?

Conspiracy theorists are autonomous learners gone wrong: they “research” using YouTube videos and tabloid newspapers – fortifying a complex web of delusions that, once in place, can be difficult to challenge or remove because such thinking often deliberately excludes possible (reasonable) attempts at falsification. Before an individual can believe in a conspiracy theory they need to violate certain key-principles of critical thinking:

1. They need to fail to detect common logical fallacies inherent to conspiracy theories (such as selection bias, slippery slope fallacies, false equivalencies, false dichotomies, and a host of others).

2. Secondly they fail to identify and rise above what can be broadly be called “emotional manipulation”: conspiracy theory propaganda (albeit often “grassroots propaganda) and “documentaries” [i.e. on YouTube and social media] often feature the same emotive content, anxious music, and sensationalism that other forms of deliberately manipulative information presentation genres manifest.

3. Finally, due to a lack of self-awareness and metacognitive skills, learners need to be unaware of their own emotional biases and vulnerabilities that can corrupt the pursuit of truth (and, therefore, the learning process) prior to succumbing to a conspiracy theory. They fail to ‘take the step back’ and look at how they are thinking in a self-critical way that involves analysis and evaluation of their own thinking styles.

There are a number of important things that all of this amounts to:

· Critical-thinking skills are essential if one is to create effective autonomous learners

· Media awareness is an essential component of critical thinking skills education

· Students need to learn to be sceptical inquirers with keen ‘logical fallacy detection systems’

· Metacognition is important in critical-thinking processes: learners need the ability to reflect on their own thinking styles and cognitive processes in order to detect both logical-fallacies and personal bias

Pre-Bunking & Motive Awareness

One aspect of critical-thinking and “fake news detection” education that has been neglected is increasing awareness of the motives. Earlier this year Roozenbeek (2020) and his colleagues at The University of Cambridge published research evidencing the effectiveness of "pre-bunking" strategies in protecting people against "fake news".

The pre-bunking intervention draws on the theory of psychological inoculation: analogous to the process of medical immunization, researchers found that that “prebunking,” or preemptively warning and exposing people to weakened doses of misinformation, can help cultivate “mental antibodies” against fake news. They utilised social impact games rooted in basic insights from social psychology in order boost immunity against misinformation across a variety of cultural, linguistic, and political settings.

Crucially: their method involves putting the learner in the shoes of the agent of misinformation in order to understand the motives and drives behind misinformation. When students understand the motives and agendas behind misinformation they become more resistant to it, for example:

· When students understand that “getting clicks” is driven by the desire to earn money through advertisement: sensationalist “clickbait” headlines about UFO conspiracies lose credulity

· When students understand that their favourite “truth-seeker” YouTube channel and its hosts are, in part, driven by the monetisation of their videos (and, therefore, their viewers) it (quite rightly) calls their integrity as information providers into question

· When students discover that a particular piece of conspiracy theory “evidence” is actually being sponsored or promoted by a particular political agenda (or even an established political think-tank) they become aware of the hidden agendas that may create bias in that evidence

Some Free Teaching Resources for Critical Thinking

We have put together an easy to use critical thinking resource pack for teachers to use in their lessons.

Resource 1: Logical Fallacy Detection Quiz

The first component focuses on logical-fallacies and logical fallacy detection. It includes a double-sided A3 information sheet or poster that outlines various common logical fallacies and is accompanied by a ‘Logical Fallacy Quiz’ so that they can practice their skills in logical-fallacy detection. In the peer-assessment section of the quiz each logical fallacy is explained briefly so that students can further understand the error that has occurred.

You can download this resource for free by clicking here:

Resource 2: Pre-bunking Agents of Misinformation

The second resource that you can download freely here focuses on agents of misinformation and their motives. It explores a variety of common sources of misinformation aside from conspiracy theorists: tabloid news, “alternative medicine” gurus, pseudoscientific advertisers, and even government propaganda.

In this resource (a complete lesson) students (KS2 and KS3) explore the motives behind particular agents of misinformation and the consequences that might befall those who succumb to the misinformation that’s being peddled.

Crucially, based on Roozenbeek et al’s (2020) research into prebunking strategies the lesson features a role-play activity in which teams conspire to become particular agents of misinformation, fully aware of their actual motives and agendas, and act out their own misinformation campaigns. By doing so they can gain a more intimate understanding of what’s really behind much of the misinformation that they encounter on the internet (and in the real world).

Resource 3: Metacognition Teaching Resources

Since metacognition is an important aspect of critical-thinking, please see our free downloads section in order to download metacognition teaching resources.

Further Training for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills at KS2 & KS3

When it comes to bringing both critical-thinking and philosophical thought into the classroom we recommend the following course on Udemy: Doing Philosophy With Young Learners - Teacher Training CPD


Roozenbeek, Jon & van der Linden, Sander & Nygren, Thomas. (2020). Prebunking interventions based on the psychological theory of "inoculation" can reduce susceptibility to misinformation across cultures. 1. 10.37016/mr-2020-008.