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Elections Offer Critical Thinking Skills

Turn on the television, open the newspaper, or magazine and notice the ads. What are all advertisers doing to get your attention. They use a time tested formula that sells products. 

1. They point out something to be fearful of like rashes, aches and pains, male patterned baldness, female facial hair, or weak bones in children. 

2. Then they offer a solution. Their ointment, pill, or vitamins will solve the problem they have brought to the audience’s attention. 

3. If everyone who tried the products that make amazing claims were asked about their effectiveness, we may find that most do not deliver.  

4. They often offer something FREE that turns out to cost more in shipping and handling than they item if the consumer returns the FREE item. 

These strategies of creating a fear is effective because fear creates anxiety. Anxiety ignites the stress response that draws blood from the very part of the brain that needs it to make rational decisions. So the advertiser create a stressor or a threat that sets off the fight or flight response that results in women buying a face cream that stops hair facial growth. It is fear that results in parents buying vitamin enriched cereal that is loaded with sugar. The. emotional decisions of buyers is a multibillion dollar business for the fear creators. 

Since this method of grabbing attention, retaining it, and then selling the product is so effective, politicians have adopted it. 

Now that many states are in another election year, and as we get closer to November, we will be able to witness a bombardment of ads, articles, posts, commercials, and emails in which politicians tell us why we need to fear their opponents along with promises. 

Since 1972, I have been helping students become powerful evaluators of what they see, hear, and read. I challenged my students to record the statements the politicians made in their ads and speeches. They came back with lists of complaints by the politicians about their opponents. The following were observations they made after hearing what each student recorded:

  1. They spoke about things that made everyone afraid. 
  2. They told the listener or reader all the bad things they could find out about their opponents.
  3. They pointed out all the problems that were happening and promised they would solve them. Some promised to end the Viet Nam war, reduce inflation, etc.
  4. It doesn’t matter if they were democrats, republican, libertarians, or Green Party.

I shared how election promises and fears have not changed for the past. Promises are easy to make, but not always easy to make happen. My father always said, “Don’t promise me anything. Don’t tell me what you are going to do. Tell me what you did.”

They made lists of the topics that they recorded. Then they discussed the flaw in the statements. They were asked to form questions they would ask the politician. The questions were: “Where did you get this information?”  “What did you do that shows you will do what you say.” “You said you will stop inflation. How will you accomplish that?” “You said you were going to reduce taxes. How will you be able to do that.” “You said you are going to make collage free. How can you do that? It costs money to pay teachers.”

This short list is just a sample of the questions these 6th graders came up with that demonstrated they were developing excellent critical thinking skills.

These same students are in their 60’s. Those who keep in touch have called or emailed to share how they continue to see the same strategies being used that I taught in 1970’s. They wondered why the people today don’t know about the strategies that would help them see what politicians are doing to get the votes to be elected.

The  period of excessive bombardment of advertising by politicians during elections offers a perfect time to help students develop their critical thinking skills. Parents and teachers can encourage students to make objective observations of all candidates. It’s important that parents and teachers avoid sharing their own bias. Learning how to critically view ads and evaluate its credibility is important. They need opportunities to research claims made by candidates and evaluate their credibility without bias. 

After the election, it’s important for the students to observe the actions taken by those who win and if they follow through on their promises. 

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