Last Wednesday many of us came together to discuss the very challenging issue of promoting critical thinking in the ELT classroom. As the chat progressed it became apparent that this was generating a number of differing points of views, of parallel issues and a multiplicity of discussion threads, all of which happened at an immensely fast rate. When I came to write the summary and took a detailed look at all the tweets, I was amazed by the fact that I hadn’t in fact accompanied all the discussion threads, even though I felt at the time that I was accompanying all.
The summary will pick up on the following themes:
1) What is Critical thinking?
2) Does CT happen naturally or does it need to be taught?
3) Is CT suitable for all age ranges?
4) What are the benefits of CT?
5) Is CT influenced by cultural differences & educational-political policy?
6) How can we develop CT in the ELT classroom?
7) Are there limits to CT in the classroom?
A theme which did rear its head was CT and testing. However, looking over the tweets I had the impressions that many questions were asked, but only some were addressed. So, for the purpose of this summary, I did not focus on this and I actually think that perhaps this issue merits its own twitter chat.
What is Critical thinking?
The discussion began by considering exactly what was meant by developing Critical Thinking and the ideas centred around the following definitions:
– developing (the the focus is on the process of development) the learners´ ability to ask questions (and this may take quite a bit of time) and discuss things;
– about questioning the status quo and re-thinking established routines;
– developing learners’ understanding, comprehension and helping them to look for explanations through reflection and find solutions;
– helping students to read between the lines and developing the ability to synthesize and reflect in a meaningful manner;
– fostering higher order thinking skills and creative skills, it also stimulates flexibility and an understanding of diversity;
– necessary if we want to ensure discovery learning, problem solving oriented teaching, cognitive awareness of language;
– how students use information collected to take their own decisions (and so develop their own autonomous selves) and see things from a new perspective;
– about starting with a focus on learners and ending with a focus on the learners.
– about giving the learners the tools and making them responsible for their own learning process.
In order to make clear what CT is, we also discussed what CT isn´t:
– It´s not just getting students to apply knowledge
– It´s not about getting learners just to memorize things;
– It´s not about using coursebooks in a linear fashion and as the sole classroom resource;
– No (critical) thinking can actually lead to no learning.
Does CT happen naturally or does it need to be taught?
We shared differing views on this, but on the whole we agreed that it does need to be dealt with explicitly in the classroom as it does not necessarily emerge naturally or innately. Whilst some learners may be naturally skilled in thinking critically, others may need to experience far more scaffolding by the teacher in order to ensure they develop this ability.
The need for explicitly dealing with CT skills is also dependent on learners´ own educational background, (especially if they are adults), and on educational and political policies regarding the promotion of CT within their society (but more on cultural influences below).
We also agreed that the development of CT skills are significantly influenced by learners´ age and level.
Is CT suitable for all age ranges?
We agreed that we can indeed foster CT skills at all levels and age ranges, although our approach will certainly be different (see below on implementation), as will the experience when dealing with this in the classroom.
Developing CT skills with young learners was felt by many to be easier in that we are sort of starting from scratch. We all felt that this is an excellent moment to start developing these important life skills. Yet, we were reminded that we need to focus on the development of a faculty and there are limitations to what these young children can process. The wording and scaffolding of the tasks need to be kept simple and clear in order to encourage children to be able to observe things and take decisions. Unlike adults and teenagers, with young learners we would have to encourage task engagement without explicitly telling them what they would be doing.
Many felt that teaching CT skills for adult learners is an immense challenge. Many voiced their belief that they expect adult learners to come to class with some degree of CT ability and some wondered whether they, in fact, need to engage in promoting CT with adults. Yet, as the discussion progressed it became clear that an adult learner’s ability to think critically is entirely dependent on their background in terms of their own educational experience and their family circle (again, we ran into the issue of cultural differences, so see below).
With teenagers many mentioned that this age group often expects the teacher to have the final say on topics and issues. So one of the things that has to be fostered is to get more advanced learners to begin to get used to being questioned.
What are the benefits of CT and why do I, an ELT professional, have to deal with this in class?
This issue came up ever so briefly, but it is an important question. When the question was thrown out to the twitter chat participants the following answers arose:
– Through CT we are able to make lessons more substantial & more memorable.
– CT aids language learning in that it promotes language acquisition. Yet how does this happen? It takes place when learners work on form, work out meaning, function, register and so on and this is can be done through CT tasks.
– The marginalization of learners who are unable to think critically was also cited as evidence of the need to embed this into the ELT classroom.
Yet this also raised the point during the discussion that for us to be able to stimulate CT in our classrooms we also need to be critical thinkers ourselves. This is not something that should be reserved solely for the more experienced teachers, it should be dealt with right from the start with trainees following teacher training courses. To this end, I think this is the right moment in the summary to share a link sent to us during the chat by Phil (@pysproblem81): http://www.reflect-action.org/reflectesol, in which he referred to the Reflect Project for ESOL, which promotes an approach in which teachers and learners are encouraged to work more dialogically and the teachers steps back a bit and listens more to learners´ voices.
Is CT influenced by cultural differences & educational-political policy?
This was a point which sort of came up several times during the chat because, if we stop and think about, critical thinking is intimately linked to some issues (which can be quite thorny and delicate) such as cultural beliefs and practice; political and social restriction on the ability to express oneself as freely as we might like; educational policies and syllabus content and design.
Some participants mentioned that their teaching experience in some countries had shown them that the ability to think critically by some learners was quite limited. This meant that a common and over-used expression by learners was “It was good” to describe almost anything. What we subsequently discussed was that this was common in countries and cultures where CT is not actively encouraged. At this stage Phil Bird (@pysproblem81) introduced the notion of “power distance” as postulated by Gert Hofstede (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geert_Hofstede) in which depending on the variation in your own culture, you will be more or less likely to question.
We mentioned how difficult political situations, such as nations and countries living through long periods of dictatorship or political turmoil can also affect learners´ ability to want to and be able to engage in critical thinking. My own example came out of my observation that as our own democracy in Brazil becomes more solid, following an extended period of dictatorship, I have found learners have begun to find their own voice again. Yet this can work both ways. Nora (@NoraTouparlki) mentioned that the political turmoil in Greece has actually led her students to begin to question more and be more critical.
The discussion also moved on to how the local educational policy and syllabus can actually influence the manner in which CT is approached in schools, including the ELT classroom. A syllabus very much dependent on content overload, memorization and the replication of thought, as exemplified by Leahn (@Fuertesun) mentioning Spain, Marián (@MarianSteiner) talking about the Czech Republic will stifle the emergence of CT skills.
In all of these contexts, the ability to develop critical thinking skills needs to be dealt with in a slower manner and with far more tact. We need to understand that the process will be a long one, but we cannot give up and avoid CT in the ELT classroom.
How can we develop CT in the ELT classroom?
This was where all participants came up with a tremendous variety of ideas and is the bit many of us were really looking forward to reading and sharing our thoughts about.
This will be presented in list format to be able to cover all that was shared.
– why, how and what do you think questions;
– to work out grammar rules from evidence, approaching grammar teaching inductively, using discovery learning;
– to use the SQ4R reading strategy when approaching grammar, as tweeted by Mohamed Akhssass (@akhssass). The SQ4R theory is a motivational reading strategy which ensures that learners look at a given text in the following manner: S(urvey), Q(uestion), R(ead), R(eflect), R(ecite), R(eview) (of all the sites I looked over to give a clearer exemplification of this reading method, I liked this one the best: http://dearteacher.com/sq4r).
– to work out vocabulary meaning from context; to analyse word choice, e.g. the difference between ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘terrorists’ & what this reveals about the writer (@hartle);
– to look at how news can be reported differently in the media;
– to create presentations (great for teens & adults);
– to do puzzles and online games (YLs and teens) and Marisa (@Marisa_C) suggested a close look at Graham Stanley´s (@grahamstanley) blog Digital Play on game based learning for ideas;
– to start a lesson (warmer activity) by talking about: your day so far in smells, colours, sounds etc. (YLs & adults);
– to conduct simple tasks which do promote CT such as, think about your breakfast and ask: “What did you eat?”, “Where did it come from?”, “Why did you eat it?” (@harrisonmike)
– to work using poetry as a means of stimulating higher order thinking skills. Naomi (@naomishema) explained the High School programme being developed in Israeli schools encourages the use of inference, perspective, identifying cause and effect, evaluating, comparing, classifying. She exemplified how they used Robert Frost´s The Road Not Taken for developing problem solving skills and inferences.
– to critically view texts in class and Sharon Hartle (@hartle) shared as an example of this her wiki: http://c1academicenglish.wikispaces.com/register
– to send their own work to peers for constructive feedback on how to improve their work;
– to explicitly use thinking strategies by e.g. using graphic organisers (link suggested by Phil: @psyproblem81): http://www.exploratree.org.uk/, because a task involving decision-taking on information categories can contribute to CT;
– to do mind maps about topics encourages them to deepen their own knowledge;
– to debate issues, building a case for a specific point of view (often quite useful to defend an issue you may be personally against as this can really stimulate CT);
– to pick apart stereotypes as this can lead to the emergence of critical viewpoints;
– to involve learners in projects about global issues, such as Odyssey 2050, thanks for the link Ana (@analuisalozano);
– to encourage learners to put themselves in someone else´s shoes as a means of extending CT speaking tasks and to this end Edward de Bono´s Six Thinking Hats was suggested as an interesting model – Neil (@mcneilmahon)
– to make choices individually on topics, themes, ideas etc. and then discuss this with a partner.
From a teachers´ perspective, we proposed that some ways to foster CT in class could be to:
– stop spoon-feeding learners;
– ask learners to question the teachers’ own teaching approach in the classroom (Bethany @bethcagnol);
– to look at some of the ideas posted in @SeanBeanville´s blog (http://seanbanville.com/tag/change-the-world/) on how to change the world (thanks to Sandy @sandymillin for this superb link);
– to plan lessons based on Bloom´s Taxonomy, going from bottom to top: (Lower Order Thinking Skills: LOTS) remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate and create (Higher Order Thinking Skills: HOTS) (Neil @mcneilmahon). Thanks to Claudia (@fceblog) for sharing her delicious page on links to Bloom and to Marisa (@Marisa_C) for the interactive Bloom wiki link;
– focus more on the process of stimulating CT, rather than on the results and answers (Shelly @ShellTerrell)
– encourage weaker or slower students to participate in CT tasks, which can at times be daunting for some, by giving them the task before the lesson so that they can, in a sense, prepare for it (@PrettyButWise);
– find some useful strategies in the Critical Thinking Consortium, as suggested by Corey (@CoreyBelliveau);
– remember that CT does not only have to focus on serious subjects.
In general, we felt that learners needed to be told that they would be engaging in a task which would be promoting their ability to think critically.
Are there limits to CT in the classroom?
One of the final points which emerged towards the end of the chat was well put by Marián (@MarianSteiner) and Sandy (@sandymillin) which was how far we can go in the classroom when challenging learners to engage in CT. There was a shared consensus that the dividing line is quite thin and that although we can play devil´s advocate at times, we can´t force our ideas nor the desire to foster CT on learners. No learner should feel unduly uncomfortable in the classroom during a debate, no one should be scared away from CT. As pointed out by Brad (@brad5patterson) this can actually cause some form of ´shut down´ amongst learners and has to be avoided. We need to be sensitive and observant in order to identify the moment when we may need to pull back with some groups of learners, or a specific learner or two.
I´d like to finish this immensely long blog post with a twitter quote by Neil (@mcneilmahon):
“But remember students need the language to express their CT or you may get met with awkward silence – develop both hand in hand #eltchat”
Thanks for reading this. I hope I´ve done justice to our twitter #ELTChat and appologise for having taken so long to write this up (but there was soooo much to reflect on critically that I sort of got lost in thought ……).
A few more interesting links and references:
– Brad Patterson´s (@brad5patterson) blog with the examples of some CT questions he likes to ask learners, influenced by the example of his sociology professor: http://blog.edulang.com/do-you-share-your-values-in-the-classroom/
– Shaun Wilden (@Shaunwilden) mentioned the Palgrave Study Skills series and the book on Critical Thinking: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?is=1403996857
Claudia Ceraso’s blog post (@fceblog) on learners not questioning authority and an evolution: http://eltnotes.blogspot.com/2010/04/classroom-evolution.html