Christina Cavage is a teacher, Pearson author and teacher trainer. In this post, she explains what critical thinking is and why it’s important for your students. You might also like to watch Christina’s webinar on the same topic: Build success beyond the classroom: An Introduction to Critical Thinking.
Helping students take charge of their own thinking
There have been many times throughout my three-decade teaching career where I have walked into the classroom, posed a question, and watched the room fall silent. Some students searched in their texts while others looked in their notebooks. However, the answer was not to be found in either. I was asking my students to find something that was beyond those pages. I was asking them to think critically.
What exactly does it mean to think critically? Well, if you conduct a quick search, you will find hundreds of definitions. Many of these include words like reflect, analyze and evaluate. And those are all skills that demonstrate critical thinking.
However, a favorite definition of mine has always been Elder and Paul’s. They define critical thinking as “the ability of an individual to take charge of their own thinking and develop appropriate criteria and standards for analyzing their own thinking”.
What is appealing, especially in an ELT context, is the phrase ‘own thinking’. Notice that phrase appears twice. In our English language classes, we need to build our students’ abilities to develop and become aware of their own thinking patterns. We need to help them develop tendencies and habits in reflecting and asking, “What’s going on here?”.
For ELT educators this means taking a global approach to critical thinking. The thoughtful and deliberate teaching of critical thinking needs to be part of our teaching toolkit. We need to develop a mindset around it, and it needs to become part of our ideology—our belief system that the explicit teaching of critical thinking should be embedded in every lesson, right from the start.
Educating the whole language learner
Language teachers tend to focus only on the linguistic needs of our learners. We work hard to fill those language gaps. But are we building critical thinking skills? Are we preparing our students to be successful beyond our language classes?
Critical thinking is about developing three distinct areas: linguistic, academic and cultural.
When we build critical thinking across all three areas, we are educating the whole language learner. We are preparing them for success.
It’s important to think about Bloom’s cognitive domains of learning:
- When we are on our way to learning something, we begin by remembering it. For example, remembering that –ed on a regular verb means it is in the past tense.
- Next, we understand it. We see –ed and think ‘past tense’. Then, we apply it—maybe change verbs from present to past.
- Then, we analyze, evaluate and eventually create with it.
These last three stages involve quite a bit of critical thinking. For example, when we provide an essay prompt, and it is to write about a historical event, students have to analyze the question and determine what it is asking, evaluate it and determine how they will construct it in the past tense, and finally create. These are critical thinking skills related to the content they are learning, or their linguistic literacy.
But, what about critical thinking skills that are needed when working in groups? Or those that are used to navigate a website or change one’s mind?
Building affective domains
That’s where affective domains come in. They move from receiving to characterizing information. They don’t simply involve logic and organization, but also bring our emotions, values, motivations and attitudes into the equation.
As teachers, we need to help students to value what others are saying, to participate by demonstrating a willingness to listen, and to organize their ideas. We can build these tasks into our classroom in the form of simulations, reaction papers and role-playing. One way to do this is to set up students in groups and giving them roles. For example:
- Role 1: State an opinion.
- Role 2: Listen to Student A’s opinion and disagree with it.
- Role 3: Listen to Student A’s opinion, and Student B’s disagreement. Provide your idea and why you agree or disagree with each student.
Tasks like this help prepare students with affective critical thinking skills.
Giving students the tools to be successful beyond learning English
Finally, tasks that build both cognitive and affective critical thinking should take your students’ goals into account – especially if they want to study or work abroad. For example, if you are teaching in an EAP setting, and you are preparing learners for university study in the UK, US or Canada, you must also consider the cultural expectations of that setting.
Building critical thinking in how to navigate the systems, how to integrate themselves successfully in those settings are essential in educating the whole learner.
When we thoughtfully design lessons to build and foster critical thinking skills, it gives students so much more than new language skills. By providing students the toolkit they need to think critically, they can be successful beyond English.