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Critical Thinking in your lessons – It’s easier than you think!

Pensive girlIn the second blog post in our series on 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), Charles Vilina talks more specifically about critical thinking skills and how you can bring critical thinking into your lessons.

In my earlier blog, I introduced some of the main 21st Century skills, and argued that the English language classroom is a perfect environment to build those skills. After suggesting five “strategies” that I feel are essential to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning, I promised some more specifics in later blogs.

My focus for this particular post is on the skill known as “critical thinking.” I look at critical thinking as a series of abilities that take students beyond simple comprehension of information. A critical thinker uses logic and evidence to prioritize and classify information, find relationships, make judgments, and solve problems.

You might argue that our students don’t need to move beyond the simple comprehension of words and sentences. However, critical thinkers are better learners, because they explore meaning much more deeply. As English language curriculums continue to use more content to teach English, critical thinking strategies give students a chance to analyze and process the information in valuable ways.

Let’s look at one specific way in which you can begin to bring critical thinking into your lessons. It begins with vocabulary, one of the building blocks of language.

Vocabulary

In all vocabulary development, students must know a word in three ways: by its form, its meaning, and its use. Critical thinking takes this concept even further. Students should know a word as it relates to other words. For example, let’s say that you are teaching students the following lexical set about forms of transportation:

bicycle sailboat
airplane hot air balloon
rocket subway train
cruise ship bus
taxi skateboard

Once your students have a solid understanding of the above words, I’d suggest the following activity:

  1. Divide the class into groups of four students.
  2. Ask student groups to list the above forms of transportation in order from slowest to fastest.
  3. Ask each student group to discuss their list with another group.

This activity, as simple as it sounds, involves lots of logic and critical thinking. For example, students may decide that a skateboard is probably the slowest form of transportation on the list. However, it gets a bit more difficult after that. Is a bicycle faster than a sailboat? It depends on the wind speed. Therefore, does a sailboat move at the same speed as a hot air balloon, since they both move with the wind? Does a taxi move faster than a subway train? Sometimes, but then a taxi has to stop at intersections. How about a cruise ship? Perhaps we can find the average speed of one on the Internet. Is a rocket the fastest form of transportation? Yes, everyone agrees that it is.

The goal is actually NOT to arrive at a correct answer, but to get students to think more deeply about words, what they represent, how they are each part of bigger systems, how they relate to each other within those systems, and so on.

By doing so, students are required to use all of their language skills in the process. The lesson is no longer about memorization and simple meaning. It has transcended this and become an experience. Students are much more likely to remember and use these vocabulary words after such an activity.

Of course, any number of vocabulary sets can be used, with a variety of other critical thinking activities. For example:

1. The lexical set is “inventions”

Activity One:  List the words on a timeline in the order in which they were invented.

Activity Two:  List the words again in the order of importance to humans.

2. The lexical set is “sports”

Activity One:  List the words in a Venn Diagram, dividing sports into those that can be played indoors only, outdoors only, and both indoors and outdoors.

Activity Two:  List the words again in the order of the amount of equipment needed to play them.

3. The lexical set is “adjectives”

Activity One:  List the words under the headings of Positive, Negative, and Neutral.

Activity Two:  List the words in a Venn Diagram, dividing the adjectives into those that can describe people, things, or both.

As mentioned before, get students into groups to collaborate and to achieve the goals of each activity. Then, get groups talking together to discuss their choices.

These types of activities are especially helpful as students later create sentences using these words. After all, they’ve had a chance to explore the vocabulary more deeply with their fellow classmates.

In coming blogs, we’ll discuss many more ways to include critical thinking in your lessons. Until then, Happy Teaching!


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5 Ways to Prepare Your Students for the 21st Century

young boy reading a workbookIn the first in a series of blog posts about 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), author and English language teacher Charles Vilina provides some great tips on why 21st Century skills are important, and how to incorporate them into your classroom teaching.

When I was a small boy in the 1960s, drawings of the 21st Century always showed the same visions. People of the future would wear shiny space clothing, travel on moving sidewalks and in flying cars, and talk on portable phones.

Isn’t it interesting that many of these visions have come true? We now have personal computers and smartphones that let us share information instantly around the world. Modern air travel can take us anywhere on the planet. And while I don’t wear space clothes, I do use those moving sidewalks in airports! I think we can all agree that the 21st Century is a very exciting time in human history.

So when I talk to teachers about new developments in English education, and go on to mention the term 21st Century skills, why do so many begin to look uncomfortable?

Let’s start by looking at these skills a bit more carefully. 21st Century skills can actually be listed as a group of words that begin with the letter “C”.

Communication          Creativity          Critical Thinking          Collaboration

To state it simply, these are the four skills that your students will need to be successful in the 21st Century.

21st Century skills are being taught in primary classrooms in many countries. Many international schools are also committed to teaching these skills. However, I would argue that your English language classroom is actually the PERFECT place to build these 21st Century skills. Here’s why:

In essence, the English language classroom exists to prepare students to communicate across cultures, across borders, across perspectives. As the world evolves toward greater interconnectedness, it is our students to whom we entrust the responsibility of building a better global society. Yes, basic language skills are essential. However, equally essential is an individual’s ability to think outside the box, find future solutions to future problems, collaborate and reach a consensus across cultural and national borders.

So let’s get to some specifics. How easy is it to teach 21st Century Skills in your classroom? Well, chances are good that you’ve already started. The English language classroom has been evolving for decades, and continues to do so.

As a general guide, however, here are five “essential strategies” I would recommend that you develop in your classroom to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning. They may involve a change in perspective about how your students learn best, so feel free to take small but steady steps toward these goals. Practical information on how to implement these strategies will follow in future blogs.

1. Let Your Students Lead The Learning

Learning takes place best in environments where students feel empowered to learn. Effective teachers are more like moderators, offering inspiration and guiding students to discover for themselves. Give students the opportunity to be self-learners, which guarantees lifelong learning. This brings us directly to the second point.

2. Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom Environment

If students are to lead the way to learning, they need to be able to ask questions – and then find the means to answer them. Students (and teachers) need to “wonder out loud” as they encounter new information. A KWL chart (What do you Know? What do you Want to know? What have you Learned?) can guide students toward true self-motivated learning.

3. Encourage Collaboration

We are greater than the sum of our parts.”  Herein is the heart of collaboration. A healthy, active classroom is a sharing classroom. Students are social beings, and even more so in a language class. Find every opportunity to allow students to form pairs and small groups. Not only does this encourage the development of speaking and listening skills, but it also teaches students how to effectively achieve goals together.

4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Learning is more than memorizing and remembering. Critical thinking skills take students well beyond simple comprehension of information. Students use these skills to solve problems in new situations, make inferences and generalizations, combine information in new patterns, and make judgments based on evidence and criteria. Introduce activities in your lessons that build critical thinking skills along with language skills.

5. Encourage Creativity

Encourage your students to be creative throughout each lesson. Creative activities allow students to express what they’ve learned in a new way. This synthesizing and personalizing of knowledge consolidates learning, and creates an experience that remains with students long after the class is over.

By keeping these strategies in mind as you plan each lesson, you will be encouraging the development of 21st Century skills. Of course, your students may also need time to adjust to this new way of learning. However, they will soon begin to feel empowered to think more critically, to ask questions and seek answers, and to express themselves creatively. Most importantly, their communication skills will become much stronger as a result, which always remains our main objective!

Keep an eye out for more in-depth blogs in the 21st Century skills series. In the meantime, I wish all of you the greatest of adventures in this wonderful vocation that is English education!