Plenty of ELT materials now include prompts and activities designed to foster students’ critical-thinking (CT) skills. I work with teenage students, and two questions that tend to crop up when the heading ‘critical thinking’ appears on the page are 1) What is critical thinking, anyway? and 2) Why do we have to deal with it in the English lesson? By the end of the class I sometimes find that I am asking myself the same questions, too.
The problem, I feel, is that critical thinking is sometimes treated as if it were purely a language skill, whereas in fact it is actually a complex life-skill, which, if properly developed can benefit students in countless real-life situations and interactions.
So what is critical thinking, anyway?
For me, it includes the following key points:
1. The belief that the information we are given should not always be accepted at face value.
This belief is by no means universally held. For all the enthusiasm about critical thinking in ELT at present, we should remember that not everyone agrees that this questioning reflex is necessary or desirable. Few proponents of critical thinking would say that CT is always a virtue, for that matter. It is linked to culture, but also to context. Wherever you are from, you can probably think of a situation when it would be deeply inappropriate to question the information you were given. When used, CT skills therefore need to be used wisely.
2. The idea that there is a difference between comprehension and understanding,
Students who get 100% on the reading comprehension understand the text, right? Not necessarily. Many students get all the information from a text successfully but still miss the big picture. These blind spots occur most frequently when we conflate language comprehension with full understanding, and are satisfied with mere surface comprehension. Knowing the meaning of the vocabulary and the sense of every sentence is sometimes not enough. We sometimes need to get students thinking in a different, more critical way if we want them to understand what they have read more fully.
3. The awareness that we are surrounded both by information and misinformation.
Not all the texts, reports, or indeed images that our students encounter will have been edited and scrutinised for bias and objectivity. This is particularly pertinent to outside-the-classroom situations, especially when dealing with social media posts and unverifiable sources. Being aware of the ambiguity is the first step; having strategies with which to resolve it is the second step. That’s where the teacher can be of assistance.
4. The conviction that understanding is enhanced not only by getting answers, but also by formulating new questions.
Successful learners are the ones with the right questions, not the ones with the right answers.
Why do we have to deal with it in the English lesson?
As a matter of fact, we don’t have to. There is something to be said for being critical of critical-thinking itself, especially in ELT contexts. Nevertheless, here are some of the real-life benefits that I feel can be had from a smart and sensitive use of CT in the language classroom
- It can help us to become aware of our own biases, and to maintain a sense of balance.
For example: asking students to argue against their own beliefs in a classroom debate, and then to reflect on the experience.
- It can help us to develop the capacity for empathy through examining multiple perspectives.
For example: Describe a hypothetical situation to your students, e.g. A laptop is stolen from an unlocked car. Ask students to tell the full story from two perspectives. In the first scenario, the theft must be seen as morally unjustifiable; in the second scenario, however, the theft must be made to seem morally justifiable. (Dudley, 2018:81)
- It can help us become better at detecting attempts to use language to influence and manipulate.
For example: Find and share instances of texts designed to influence and manipulate – it might be from a news source, advertising, or social media; ask students to find, analyse and share further examples that they have found themselves.
For further thoughts and practical ideas, you can watch my free webinar! Click on the button below to view the recording.
Edmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 25 years of classroom experience. Based in Budapest, he has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels. He works with teachers from around the world as a freelance teacher trainer and as a tutor at the University of Oxford’s ELT Summer Seminar. He is the author of ETpedia Teenagers (2018, Pavilion Publishing) and co-author of Mixed-Ability Teaching (2015, Oxford University Press).