Critical thinking is seen as an increasingly valued skill to teach students in the 21st Century, but the first thing we need to ask is what exactly is it? Very often critical thinking can become a complaint that people aren’t thinking like me! Some definitions have a focus on being a better citizen and ‘academic’ such as open-mindedness, detecting and challenging bias, analyzing data and research results, revealing vested interests, etc., while other definitions tend to focus more on the needs of the job market, so to some extent less on challenging and more on problem solving, communication and creativity, for example. Your choice of definition will have some impact on the kind of critical thinkers you develop.
However, even if we all agree as citizens the importance of developing critical thinking, this still leaves questions as to whether critical thinking is actually anything new and how far the English language class is the place to develop these skills. Our feeling is that actually many teachers will have been doing critical thinking tasks and promoting it, even if they did not give it that name. Many of us will have done activities such as brainstorming or story writing (creativity); ranking tasks or debates (analysis); and discussions or tasks that involve problem-solving and mixed critical thinking skills. And of course, as communication is a central part of critical thinking, we have been doing that as well!
From our point of view, these tasks were good to do in the past and continue to be so, however, we would emphasize six of areas to make the most of such tasks to develop students abilities in critical thinking.
1. Believe your students have a voice
For any language teacher, when we hear students struggling with language, we can sometimes mistake those struggles with having nothing to say. As parents, we can mistake our kid’s childish interests or lack of experience as signifying they may not have anything to say on more ‘adult’ topics. Our first step to teaching critical thinking is therefore to recognize our own prejudices, give students the opportunities to express themselves (however ‘badly’) and help give voice to them.
Helping to give students a voice must mean teaching language. When it comes to critical thinking, this will tend to be more vocabulary, chunks and lexical patterns than grammar. We would give the example of Just because … doesn’t mean …, as a lexical pattern that allows students to challenge stereotyping or generalizations and ‘As a (teacher, teenager)…’ as a way to adopt perspectives. At lower levels this may mean teaching language which is frequent but perhaps is not typically seen as low level (e.g. cause problem; create jobs; attract business).
3. Following students talk – more language
This includes listening to students attempts to express themselves and helping them to say it better. From our point of view that would mean reformulating students’ ideas rather than explaining that they have failed to say something correctly. At low levels, this may mean accepting very ‘broken’ English, some use of L1 and more T-S interaction to help give students a voice.
4. Challenging texts
We need to go beyond simple comprehension tasks and get students to give more opinions about what they read and provide space for alternative perspectives. For example, additional information on the topic of the text, deciding how applicable ideas in the text are to their lives, etc. These may lead to students trying to say things they don’t have English for. We can help them and teach it!
5. Being models of critical thinking ourselves
In reformulating language and students opinions we need to be careful not to impose our own views and say what we want to say. Instead, we may ask questions, look for more information, etc.
6. Be consistent across our teaching
For both language and skills to be developed they need to be repeated over time in different contexts and integrated with other language and skills we have learned. From this point of view when we come across a box in a book, we can feel that is the moment we teach this language or this skill and when that section of the book is done we move on. The thing is to make use of different critical thinking skills throughout the course – even where they may not be specifically labeled as such.
Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Did you know Andrew and Hugh recently hosted a webinar about ‘Giving Students a Voice: Critical Thinking in the ELT Classroom’? You can watch the full webinar recording HERE.