I’m not sure about here in the UK, but where I teach (in California, when I’m not on the PS10), something has gone off in our approach to teaching in the last 10-15 years. When I compare the ways that I was taught to be a student, how to read, what to consider, and what I see in my students now, there is a marked distance—and not only in our age as I acknowledge I am getting older!
It seems that with legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), in order to ensure students passed their classes, we forgot to teach them how to think, or how to exist outside of a classroom that isn’t assessed via standardized testing. Most importantly, it seems we have failed an entire generation of students in terms of teaching them to problem-solve, be collaborative and autonomous.
On this side of the pond, teaching pre-sessionals, I’ve seen something similar at other universities. Many courses are designed to encourage students to become more proficient in their English skills, but this doesn’t always translate to success in the UK classroom or community.
A simple way to ensure educational learning outcomes are met, and promote autonomous, ongoing learning in students is to foreground critical thinking in the classroom. However, the concept ‘critical thinking’, even for educators, can be difficult to quantify. Educational theorists and proponents of critical thinking have defined it in the following ways:
Sometimes I’ve thought of it as…
A system for opening every system that exists. . .
Here’s another way:
Critical thinking is thinking that analyzes thought, that assesses thought, and that transforms thought for the better.
Here’s a third way to talk about critical thinking overlapping and related to the other two:
It’s thinking about thinking while thinking in order to think better (Elder, 2000).
More academically, over the last half-century, various scholars have noted that critical thinking is a process that involves activity such as questioning, examining, interpreting, evaluating, justifying, and articulating (Hullfish & Smith, 1961; Halpern, 1996; Paul & Elder, 2001 and 2007; Holyoak & Morrison, 2005).
Still more educational theorists claim critical thinking is reflective scepticism (McPeck, 1981), and reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do (Ennis, 1992).
And finally, Atkinson (1997) equates critical thinking with social practice, and Benesch (1993) is quick to contradict that notion, claiming it is a democratic learning process.
In some ways, these definitions are all correct, or can be correct in the context of the EAP classroom. However, discussion of definitions, and theorizing about what critical thinking is, whilst helpful, does not provide the kind of information I most enjoy—concrete classroom strategies.
The following four strategies are for educators like me who say, “Thank you for the theory, can you help me with the practice?”. These are very simple ways that educators can begin to infuse their classroom with students who think critically.
Flip the dialogue and the classroom
Have students look ahead in the course workbook and ask them to come to class ready to discuss. Rather than telling them about concepts, ask leading questions to gauge engagement and understanding. Accept other students as sources of content and as experts.
For example, after students view a video lecture on course content, do not focus on their comprehension of the content, or their ability to remember content. Rather, encourage students in pairs or teams, to use their notes to consider questions such as these and require them to explain their position with evidence:
- Is the issue well stated? Has the speaker presented the information in a clear and unbiased manner?
- Does the speaker cite relevant evidence, experiences, and/or information essential to the issue?
- Does the speaker clarify key concepts when necessary?
- Is the speaker’s reasoning well-supported?
- Does the speaker present multiple viewpoints or lines of reasoning? Does he or she consider and respond to objections framed from other points of view?
- Does the speaker show sensitivity to the implications and consequences of the position he or she has taken?
Discussions centred on questions like these encourage students to actively engage with course materials, begin to realize the validity of their ideas, use higher-order thinking skills, and enter academic discourse.
Do not allow closed-ended questions
Reject a binary relationship by which students are knowledge-seekers and you the giver. Participate in the process of learning with students.
When students ask a closed-ended question, return it with “Well, what do you think?” or “How could we find out?” or “Where do we need to look to determine…?” Encourage students to learn from each other by saying, “Who can assist X in understanding about Y…”. This method builds community and collaboration in the classroom. It also moves the educator away from a position of authority and into one of collaboration.
Make students responsible for their knowledge
For those of us who have taught or also teach younger children, it can be difficult to remember that during the pre-sessional we are teaching highly skilled, exceedingly knowledgeable students with university degrees. They have the skills and understanding to take responsibility for their own learning, yet this can be a difficult lesson to internalize. As an international student in the UK myself, I had a very difficult learning curve understanding just how much self-directed learning is needed to be successful here. Use every opportunity you can to promote autonomous student learning.
For example, when a student says, “Is my SAQ thesis good?”, politely reject the question and remind him that he should attempt to find the answer before approaching you. Encourage the student to review the SAQ marking criteria with you. Do not discuss with the student until he has evaluated his own writing. Then ask, “What do you think?” before offering your comments as a discipline expert.
This method of turning responsibility back to the student can be applied to many kinds of questions; in addition to promoting student autonomy, it also builds self-confidence.
Let your praise be fixed in growth mindset principles
While there is disagreement about the efficacy and validity of the growth mindset principles, there is certainly no harm in praising effort, not intelligence or ability.
For example, when a student laments that she has read abstracts for ten articles in her quest to find three with the correct cited-by/cited-in relationship, comment on how much that reading must have done to assist her in better understanding the topic she’s considering. Or, if you are concerned about any form of classroom praise discouraging student freedom or creating dependency on the tutor, focus your comments on creating conversation patterns that assist students in building their own evaluative tools to assess and reflect on their own learning.
This allows you to create an environment in which students feel supported and validated in their efforts, and does not create an environment of conformity.
Foregrounding critical thinking in the classroom is not a panacea to students’ academic and social challenges. It does, however, create a spirit of collaboration, autonomy, and self-confidence. If these aren’t enough reasons to infuse your classes with more critical thinking, I’ve also noticed that many critical thinking strategies make work the responsibility of students, not educators. In this way, I’ve found planning and feedback to be less arduous—that alone is certainly a reason to give it a try.
Atkinson, D. 1997. A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 31 (1), pp. 71-94.
Benesch, S. 1993. Critical thinking: A learning process for democracy. TESOL Quarterly, 27 (3), pp. 545-547.
Dweck, Carol . 2010. “The Perils and Promises of Praise.” Kaleidoscope: Contemporary and Classic Readings in Education, edited by Kevin Ryan and James M. Cooper. Wadsworth, pp. 57-61.
–2008. “Brainology: Transforming Students’ Motivation to Learn.” Independent School Online-Only Journal, Winter, accessed 3 June 2016.
Ennis, R. H. 1992. The degree to which critical thinking is subject specific: Clarification and needed research. In S. P. Norris (Ed.), The Generalizability of critical thinking, pp 21-37. New York: Teachers College Press.
Halpern, D. F. 1996. Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking (3rd ed.). Erlbaum.
Holyoak, Keith J. and Robert G. Morrison., eds. 2005. The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. Cambridge University Press.
Hullfish, Henry H. and Phillip G. Smith. 1961. Reflective Thinking: The Method of Education. Dodd, Mead.
McPeck, F. 1981. Critical thinking and education. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Paul, Richard W., and Linda Elder. 2000. Critical Thinking: Basic Theory and Instructional Structures Handbook. Foundation for Critical Thinking. Foundation for Critical Thinking. Web. 6 Aug. 2016.
— 2007. Analytic Thinking. Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2007.
— 2007. Intellectual Standards. Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2007.
Reed, Jennifer H. 1998. Effect of a model for critical thinking on student achievement in primary source document analysis and interpretation, argumentative reasoning, critical thinking dispositions, and history content in a community college history course. Diss. Tampa: U of South Florida. Print.
Thompson, C., 1999, July. Critical thinking: What is it and how do we teach it in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) programs. In HERDSA Annual International Conference, Melbourne. Retrieved July, 26, pp. 2007.