Encouraging Critical Thought in the EFL Classroom

Presented by: Andy Halvorsen, English Language Fellow

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Workshop Highlights

  • Critical Thinking: Meaning and Definitions
  • The Role of Critical Thinking in Education and Life
  • How and Why Critical Thinking Fits into EFL Courses
  • Overview of Activities to Encourage Critical Thought in the EFL Classroom

Internet Suggestions:

http://www.criticalthinking.org/ | An introduction to the critical thinking community as well as a comprehensive series of links to other sites and information on the topic of critical thought.

http://www.austhink.org/critical/ | A detailed and annotated list of websites on critical thinking which includes sites on teaching critical thinking skills, critical reading, and critical writing.

http://tsa.ucles.org.uk/index.html | University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate Thinking Skills Assessment.  Contains sample tests.

http://www.criticalreading.com/ | Information and insights on how to improve critical reading skills with your students.

http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Halvorsen-CriticalThinking.html | A link to my own complete article on critical thinking in ELF classes published in the Internet TESL Journal.

1. Debate

Why it works

Debate forces students to think about the multiple sides of an issue and it also forces them to interact not just with the details of a given topic, but also with one another.  Also debates are versatile in the range of topics possible and the format that the debate may follow.

How it works

  1. Students must first be made aware of a debatable topic and of the variety of potential positions that can be taken on the topic.  These topics can come from course materials, from classroom discussion, or from the local community.
  2. Students should then be given an opportunity to research the topic somehow and form their own opinions on the issue.
  3. Next pairs or small groups should be formed where like-minded students can share their opinions on the topic and gain information from others.  During this step students should be encouraged to think about the potential arguments that will come from the other side and how they can respond to these arguments.
  4. Now some form of debate must take place where the two (or three or four) sides share their opinions and present their arguments.  This could take the form of a classic debate, with opening and closing arguments from both sides and time for rebuttals all done as a class.  Alternatively, it could simply be small groups or pairs sharing their differing points of view with one another.
  5. Then, the instructor should follow-up with a summary of the opinions and views expressed by all sides and an assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
  6. In the final step, the class and instructor should be allowed to express their opinions on which side made the case most convincingly.  This step is important in that it helps the students to understand that this type of thinking and debate process can lead to real results and provide some sense of closure on the topic.

Things to remember

  • The debate itself can take many forms
  • Students need to be allowed to form their own opinions rather than having the       teacher assign “sides” to the debate
  • Choosing a topic appropriate to the interests of the students is essential

2. Media Analysis

Why it works

Analyzing various forms of media, either in an ESL or EFL environment, gives the opportunity for students to think about important issues like media bias and censorship.  When students look at the types of issues that may bias reporting, they are also forced to think in terms of their biases and to reflect on these in detail.  This is not to say however, that media analysis needs only to focus explicitly on issues of bias and censorship as any analysis of media has the potential to raise students’ general awareness and encourage them to think about the issues that affect their lives.

How it works

  1. A form of media and topic need to be chosen, either by the instructor or the students, that reflects the interests of the class and has the potential to encourage critical thought.
  2. Time for analysis (reading, watching, listening, etc.) must then be provided to give the students ample time to absorb the material they will be asked to work with.
  3. Class, small group, or pair discussions should then be undertaken on the content of the piece to give students the opportunity to work out any problems or questions they may have.
  4. Once the students are comfortable with the content of the piece, the instructor should then introduce questions designed to encourage critical reflection.  Some possible examples are as follows:
    1. Who is the author?  Why did they write or report this piece?
    2. Do you feel the facts are accurate?  Why or why not?
    3. Is the author or reporter giving equal attention to all sides of the issue?
    4. How does this piece make you feel personally?  How do you feel others (from other countries, cultures, political groups, etc.) would feel about it?
    5. Do you see examples of bias, either in the piece itself or in the language chosen?

5.  With ample time, a good follow-up to this activity is to ask students to write a response either to the author or an editor of the piece expressing their opinions

Things to remember

  • The media is all around us and finding material for classroom use is just a matter of opening a newspaper or watching the news
  • The focus of this type of activity does not need to be on traditional topics like bias and censorship
  • Teachers must know their students and their interests in order to source appropriate material for classroom use
  • Working with local media outlets may give the opportunity for real correspondence between the class and a writer or editor

Problem Solving

Why it works

Problems exist everywhere, both inside the classroom and out, and their resolution is a popular source of conversation in all countries and cultures.  Analyzing a somewhat complex problem like a city’s poor public transport system can offer students a myriad of opportunities to analyze an issue critically.  By asking students to look at pro’s and con’s and costs and benefits an instructor is forcing them to consider real world problems that impact their daily lives in a critical way.

How it works

  1. First the class must identify a problem that is relevant to their lives and interests.  Some examples might include:
    1. The high cost of education at their school
    2. Overcrowding in the city
    3. Local noise pollution
    4. Corruption of city officials
    5. Visa difficulties for international students
  2. Next the class should work together to clearly define the problem.  This step is important for the completion of the task and the instructor needs to work to make sure everyone is starting with a similar definition.
  3. Divide the class into pairs, groups, or teams and ask them to list the root causes of the problem.
  4. The instructor should then identify two or three causes that seem appropriate to the task and ask the students to discuss steps for their correction.  Here the instructor must ask the students to keep in mind the real-world consequences to their actions and prevent solutions from becoming imaginary.
  5. With a little work from the instructor, the students’ ideas can be collected into an action plan which can be posted around class or sent to an appropriate official for review.  This works particularly well in a university setting where an instructor’s colleague can write a response to the class.

Things to remember

  • Problems are everywhere but the instructor must think through the steps in the process clearly before introducing a given problem to the class
  • Student generated solutions need to be as concrete and realistic as possible
  • Working with an outside agent (city official, university representative, lawyer) for correspondence is helpful as it lends weight and a sense of accomplishment to the project.

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