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What is Critical Thinking?

Girl looking out of a windowIn this first of a series of blog posts on English for Academic Purposes, Lawrence Lawson,  a teacher at Palomar College, USA, demystifies the term “critical thinking”.

“Why do I need my raincoat?” I asked my grandmother. It was itchy, hot, and I didn’t want to wear it.

“Look outside. Why do you think you should wear it?” she replied.

Dark clouds covered the sky; puddles vibrated with new rain. I collected these clues, connected them, and shouted, “Because it’ll keep me dry!” Instantly, my raincoat changed from something uncomfortable to something necessary and important.

With one question, my grandmother encouraged me to think critically about my world, make connections, and discover my own answers—something teachers want students to do every day.

But what is critical thinking?

A critical thinking approach asks students to do something with information being learned. Teachers can set small goals, or learning outcomes, to give students targets to hit—for example: “After this lesson, you will share with a partner three reasons why people emigrate to other countries.” The readings, questions, and exercises in the lesson encourage students to use language to discover their three reasons. Students and teachers work together to understand, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the lesson’s content to reach the stated outcomes—all skill categories in Bloom’s Taxonomy, a resource that outlines goals of the learning process. By providing students with learning outcomes, students can critically think about information and develop their own meaningful answers.

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Let’s start thinking critically…

Man thinking in black and whiteWhat is critical thinking? What are student learning outcomes?

Are they just another couple of meaningless buzzwords – open to infinite interpretation? Or are they significant concepts in helping students learn English?

To help answer these questions we have invited some EAP experts to share their thoughts on CT and SLO over the coming weeks.

Lawrence Lawson, from Palomar College, USA, will kick off by demystifying the terms and showing us why he thinks CT and SLO are important concepts for every ELT or ESL classroom.

Then we invite Joe McVeigh, a teacher trainer in the U.S., and Jennifer Bixby, a materials writer in the U.S., to explore what is meant by a “question-centered” teaching approach, and how this helps students to develop CT skills.

Later, Ann Snow, a linguist from California State University specializing in academic English, will explain how teachers can apply Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom.

And we ask some difficult questions such as Where should our energy come from?, How does power affect our leaders?, and Why does something become popular?. These questions, and others presented in the new OUP course Q Skills for Success, will be answered by some of Oxford’s finest and most esteemed scientists, philosophers and anthropologists.

Let us know if there’s anything you’d like to see covered, by leaving a comment below.

Let the critical thinking commence!


October will see the launch of a new academic English course published by OUP called Q Skills for Success. Q uses a question-centered approach to develop critical thinking skills and puts an emphasis on student learning outcomes.

[Photo by Jacob Bøtter via Flickr/Creative Commons]

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