Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking – Preparing our students for academic life

This is a handout to the session I did in Prague and Brno in Septemberber 2011.
Thank you all for coming and participating. I hope you found it useful.

How do we think?

Critical thinking is the ability to critically analyse information rather than accept information unconditionally. That is, not to accept information we receive as fact but to question what we hear, to evaluate against what we know and then to use that information to draw our own conclusions.

Let’s think about the way we think, look at these true or false questions.

 Cows are grass eating animals

 Cork is the capital of the Republic of Ireland

 Vocabulary is more important than grammar when teaching English

 Shows like X-factor are good for society

 My grandfather married my mother

The first two sentences we can answer easily and quickly, why? It is because they are universally accepted facts and if we were to question them, then we could find evidence from credible sources that would back up the facts. Those sources might be our own eyes or a biology text book etc.

It is worth remembering that credible sources can sometimes let us down. Anyone who has seen the BBC TV show QI will testify that a whole range of widely held truths have been proved to be untrue or only partially true.

Extreme critical thinkers (often known as conspiracy theorists) will not believe anything until they have seen concrete evidence but most of us accept these universal truths without needing to see proof.

Sentences three and four are beliefs. There is no right or wrong true or false answer for these. Scientists, grammarians, pedagogues or psychologist can put forward arguments and counter-arguments, can produce evidence that ‘proves’ their assertions but others might find evidence to refute their claims.

This for me is where we need to apply critical thought. When we read articles in newspapers, see documentaries on television or read books we often think that what we are reading is fact. After all they appear to be credible sources.(It must be true it was on the BBC.) But we should recognise that the creator has an agenda, and that they are using their facts to create an argument that fits their agenda.

The final sentence shows how sometimes we need to think differently. For all intents and purposes the answer should be false. But it is in fact true. The reason being is that my grandfather married hundreds of women in his role as a vicar and my mother was just one of them. So it also follows that my grandfather married my father too!

Thus sometimes we need to look at things and then look at them differently to find the answer.

Why do we need to encourage Critical Thinking in our lessons?

When we are preparing students for exams such as IELTS or TOEFL, which students are taking to allow them to enter into university, or if we are preapring them to write, read or sepak English for University study, we need to not only teach the English they will need to know to pass the exam and the exam skills they will need, we can also encourage them to think critically in preparation for their future studies.

By this I do not mean getting students to question why the present perfect is used etc. but setting exercises and tasks that get them to form their own opinion and express them effectively and also to develop skills that will enable students to evaluate information against what they know and then to use that information to draw their own conclusions.

Two questions that arise from this; why do students need to be trained to think critically and why is it our job to do it?

Educational approaches in many countries require students to memorise and then regurgitate facts, there is very little evaluation or interpretation of what they have learnt. This means that student are ill-prepared for the challenges of further education .

It could be argued that this is not our jobs, we are English teachers and not teaching further education study skills, but I would argue that by encouraging more analysis, more questioning, more evaluation, we are improving their English language skills.

Of course students might have barriers to this approach. The most common barriers are:

• Cultural or personal barriers. – a common example of this is that the student believe something because their teacher told them. In some cultures it may seem rude or impertinent to question a figure of authority.

• Mistaking information for understanding – students might think they understand because they have been taught the facts but might fall down on questions like why or how?

• Lack of methods, strategies, practice or encouragement – students may never have been asked to read between the lines, to look for flaws in an argument etc. so might not know how to do it or might be reluctant to do it.

This means that when you ask students for opinions or to speculate they might say things like:

• My teacher said it, so it must be true.

• I know it is but I don’t know why

• But what’s the right answer?

• What do you think teacher?

• I don’t know! (meaning - I can’t be bothered to think about it so I will say I don’t know, or I am worried my view will be controversial so will not say anything.)

• Is this going to be on the test?

Practical Ideas

Some ideas to introduce an aspect of critical thought into lessons.

Find a link

Give students groups of words and ask them to find a link.

For example – salary, staff, maternity leave, occupation.

Remember that even if you have an answer in your mind, you should accept any reasonable answer from your students. In this example the link in my mind is work but students might come up with other answers. Ask students for their reasons and praise them.

Odd one out

Give students a group of words and ask them to find the odd one out.

For Example - sabbatical, maternity leave, long weekend, a sickie

Again be willing to accept any answer. It is a good idea for this activity to make it ambiguous. SO in this example all these words have a link, there is not an obvious odd one out, you might argue that sickie is the odd one out as it is not planned, or long weekend because it is a holiday.

Encourage the students to discuss and share their ideas, trying to convince each other.

Remember to remind them there is no right answer.

Other activities such as categorising words, or choosing the three most important things can also help students realise that there is no correct answer and that valid answers are ones with good reasoning.

Reading for Gist (or Listening)

We set our students gist reading tasks to help them to practice their skim reading skills. But these tasks can also help students to critically analyse the text they are about to student.

Consider these three gist reading questions, what are they designed to help students to do?

 Who is the author? (job, age, political viewpoint)

 What was their motivation to write this?

 Do you agree or disagree with their point of view

This type of task encourage students to see the text as an opinion not as a fact. Other question you could ask include:

 Do you feel the facts are accurate? Why or why not?

 Is the author or reporter giving equal attention to all sides of the issue?

 How does this piece make you feel personally?

 Do you agree or disagree with the author?

 Do you believe the ‘facts’ in this article?

 How do you feel others (from other countries, cultures, political groups, etc.) would feel about it?


Einstein said that ‘education is what is left after you forget all the things you memorized in school’. While this might not strictly be true it is something to ponder. What are our roles as teachers? Do we imagine that our students will go away remembering all we have said to them or is it more realistic to assume that all we can possible do is give students the tools with which they can build their own knowledge. As Michael Baker, President of criticalthinking.com said if we teach students everything we know, their knowledge is limited to ours. If we teach students to think, their knowledge is limitless.

No comments:

Post a Comment