A Critical Look at Critical Thinking

Before taking a critical look at critical thinking, it may be useful to come up with a clear definition of the concept. One way to think about it is to focus on the type of thinking required: “Critical thinking is thinking that is clear, logical, open-minded, and based on evidence.” Another approach is to focus on the purpose of critical thinking: “It is the ability to think clearly about what to do, what to say, or what to believe.” But perhaps the best definition is one that covers both the type of thinking and its purpose: “Critical thinking is thinking about an idea in a way that helps to understand, analyze, or judge it so that effective action can be taken.”

Many people feel that being able to think critically is a vital skill in the modern world. This makes sense when one considers that critical thinking is useful in almost every aspect of our lives. In education we use it understand complex ideas, to apply what we have learned, or to make critical judgements about the quality or reliability of a source. At work we use it to communicate our ideas and choices clearly, to make decisions based on analysis not guesswork, or to predict what might or might not happen. And in our interactions with others, we use it to maintain or develop strong relationships, to synthesize information from several sources, to draw parallels between seemingly unrelated ideas, or simply to be a productive member of society.

Yet despite its importance, thinking critically can be challenging, or at least, can seem challenging. This may be especially true for English-language students who are often faced with critical thinking exercises in English-language learning materials. One obvious difficulty is that students are being asked to complete these tasks in a language that is not their own. In addition, critical thinking may be a skill that students lack confidence in, perhaps because they have not been asked to do it much or have not been given explicit instruction in how to do it, or perhaps simply because they find it difficult. Further, students may find critical thinking tasks challenging because they do not fully understand (or lack interest in) the topic they are being asked to think critically about.

So how can English-language professional help their students overcome the challenge and develop their critical thinking skills? As with any teaching challenge, there are myriad possible solutions. This post will discuss one approach that is broadly applicable to any teaching situation.

When teaching certain skills, it is standard practice to teach the process that is required to achieve a particular outcome rather than to focus on the outcome itself. In writing, for example, many teachers will explicitly teach writing as a process that has individual stages and interim outcomes. In my experience, however, it is less common to see critical thinking being taught explicitly as a process even though it can greatly benefit students to do so.

Let’s look at a simple critical thinking task to see how this would work in practice:

Task A

Work with a partner. Discuss how people from 100 years ago would feel if they traveled to the present.

Rather than simply telling students, “Please do task A” and expecting them to use critical thinking, explicitly breaking the task down and explaining the process required may be more effective:

Elicit (or explain) the first step in the process; in this case, it would be imagining what life was like in the past.

  1. Elicit lexis or grammar that would be useful in doing this: e.g., the simple past or “used to.”
  2. Elicit the expected outcome: a (mental) list of ideas about the past.
  3. Elicit the second step in the process: contrasting ideas about the past with the way things are today.
  4. Elicit lexis or grammar that would be useful in doing this: e.g., comparatives.
  5. Elicit the expected outcome: a (mental) list of major differences between the past and the present.
  6. Elicit the final step in the process: putting oneself in somebody else’s shoes in order to imagine how a time traveler might feel.
  7. Elicit lexis or grammar that would be useful in doing this: e.g., expressions of certainty and possibility.
  8. Elicit the final outcome: a discussion about how the differences between the past and the present might affect people.

Eliciting these stages, the interim and final outcomes, and useful lexis and grammar would take more time, of course, than simply asking students to “do task A,” but it would help students not only know what to do, but how to do it. This would surely give them more confidence to tackle critical thinking tasks in the future.

For more approaches for helping your students develop their critical thinking skills, watch my full webinar A Critical Look at Critical Thinking. I will be presented another webinar with National Geographic Learning on April 13th called Getting Real about Authentic Content.

Author: Christien Lee

Christien Lee, who has dual Canadian and British citizenship, has worked in English Language Teaching since 1994. His roles have included teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum developer, materials writer, director of studies, consultant, and author. He has broad experience in different aspect of ELT, but specializes in academic English and, particularly, exam preparation. Currently, his focus is on writing books and materials and developing innovative e-learning resources. He is the author of several ELT books, including other titles for National Geographic Learning.

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