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Critical Thinking in the ELT Classroom

Young man thinking while using laptopEdward de Chazal, co-author of Oxford EAP, explores the topic of critical thinking and how it should be taught in the ELT classroom.

The enquiring mind

Critical thinking is innate – it comes from inside us – and as humans we have survived and developed by approaching things critically. Children naturally try to check what they have been told, and are ‘programmed’ to piece together the information they encounter. For example, a six year-old child I know was told that diamonds are the strongest and hardest thing on earth and could cut through other stones and even metal. He then visited a rock on the English Jurassic Coast that had been ‘carved’ into an arch, and after listening to an explanation of how it had happened asked, ‘Which is more powerful, diamonds or the sea?’ This child could not yet read and write, but like other children, he was developing his critical mind.

Critical thinking essentially means having a questioning, challenging, analytical state of mind. A critical mind is comfortable with a degree of scepticism and doubt; it is a mind that is open to reinterpreting and refining its knowledge, and accepting that what we know may change in the light of new knowledge. A critical thinker questions whether something is believable, evaluates how strong is the basis of an assumption, and makes new connections between what they know and learn.

Multiple intelligences are involved in critical thinking. The conductor of an orchestra critically interprets the written score, even if it is as familiar as Beethoven’s Ninth. They aim to add something new, and communicate their interpretation to the musicians through movement. A surgeon has to work out the wider picture from the detail they can see, and act quickly. Someone working in business accesses the information relevant to their sector, assesses its significance, and looks for a new opportunity. These people are all thinking critically. Our students will do jobs like these when they have completed their education.

Critical thinking in the classroom

Part of our job as language teachers – and more broadly as educators – is to develop our students’ critical thinking competence. In reality, different students may have experienced varying degrees of nurture and discouragement at the hands of their parents, previous education, and wider culture. Our students’ level of critical thinking may not be related to their language level.

We can start by introducing tasks which ask students to question what they read and listen to, investigating the deeper – more implicit, meanings in texts – and identify assumptions and weaknesses. We can ask students to respond to statements that emerge from the materials we are already using. For example, my class were shown a slide in a lecture which stated ‘China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world’. I elicited critical questions which included: ‘When? – How soon is ‘soon’?’; ‘Why not India?’; ‘How do you know? – What are your sources?’; and ‘How well will they speak English?’ We can start by asking the simple question ‘So what?’ Our classes, and all our lives, will be richer for our students’ responses.

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Starting study skills early – an integrated approach

Asian student in libraryAhead of her talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, Sarah Philpot, co-author of the New Headway Academic Skills series, introduces the concept of an integrated approach to teaching linguistic competence and academic skills.

Study skills (aka academic skills) is not a subject that generally sets the heart aflutter. However, it is something that is dear to the hearts of many of our students. As more and more young people take their university degrees in English, so their need for good study skills increases. I’m sure that all of us who have taught students for IELTS or on pre-sessional courses are aware of the discrepancy between many students’ linguistic competence and their ability to successfully complete the academic task set for them – to write a coherent essay or read certain texts in a given time, for example.

As teachers, I think we need to address this discrepancy and the way I’m suggesting this could be done is by integrating or incorporating study skills into students’ English language course from the very beginning – yes, that really means A1.

The Headway Academic Skills series attempts to do just this by providing a short course that provides study skills which are explicit, have a clear development and are relevant and transferable.

Sarah will be talking on this topic in her session entitled ‘Starting study skills early – an integrated appproach’ at the 2011 IATEFL Conference in Brighton.

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