Dr Chris Lima offers advice on ways to teach critical thinking in EAP classes.
For university students and lecturers, the term critical thinking is part of their everyday vocabulary. It is quite common for students to receive feedback on their academic work where tutors or markers ask for ‘less description and more critical thinking’. And this is true for international and domestic students alike. For tutors working with English for Academic Purposes (EAP), critical thinking is also a very important concept as they have to make sure students understand what it means and prepare them to apply it to their work once they join their academic courses. However, despite its importance, there seems to be some confusion over what exactly critical thinking is and how to put it into practice.
Most universities have pages on their websites where the concept is explained and examples given in order to help students grasp it. However, the fact that universities feel the need to have such support pages shows that for many students and teachers, the concept of critical thinking is not as clear as it should be. There have been many attempts to define critical thinking but definitions are not always straightforward and sometimes they can even be conflicting.
The definition below is given by the Foundation for Critical Thinking:
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.
Comprehensive as this definition may be, students may find that even after reading it, the concept is still not clear. What a critical thinker would do with the definition above is, for instance, start analysing the statement and asking some questions about the values expressed and implied in the definition, its possible cultural bias and the implications of accepting or rejecting it. For instance, how can we decide whether a standard is ‘rigorous’ or not? Who decides that? What does ‘effective’ mean? The word ‘self’ is repeated four times but what about the importance of other people’s points of view and the social group in the process of developing critical thinking? What is egocentrism? What is sociocentrism? Who is the ‘us’ in ‘our native egocentricism’? And if there is an ‘us’, is there a ‘them’?
The second step would be to propose an alternative definition or changes to this definition based on the writer’s own value systems, his or her reading on the topic and his or her understanding of how knowledge is created and communicated.
The Great Schools Partnership, an America organization devoted to educational reform, provides a more accessible definition and some practical examples:
Critical thinking is a term used by educators to describe forms of learning, thought, and analysis that go beyond the memorization and recall of information and facts. In common usage, critical thinking is an umbrella term that may be applied to many different forms of learning acquisition or to a wide variety of thought processes. In its most basic expression, critical thinking occurs when students are analyzing, evaluating, interpreting, or synthesizing information and applying creative thought to form an argument, solve a problem, or reach a conclusion.
Critical thinking entails many kinds of intellectual skills, including the following representative examples:
- Developing well-reasoned, persuasive arguments and evaluating and responding to counterarguments
- Examining concepts or situations from multiple perspectives, including different cultural perspectives
- Questioning evidence and assumptions to reach novel conclusions
- Devising imaginative ways to solve problems, especially unfamiliar or complex problems
- Formulating and articulating thoughtful, penetrating questions
- Identifying themes or patterns and making abstract connections across subjects
It is important that EAP tutors help students to understand that engaging in critical thinking does not mean being contrary to ideas expressed by others just for the sake of it. Nor does it mean just to ‘have an opinion’. This is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to put across to students: ‘having an opinion’ is not the same as thinking critically. ‘Opinions’ need to be the result of analysis, interpretation and creative thinking that is based on extensive reading on the topic.
In the field of literary studies, for example, my own working definition of applied critical thinking is: compare and contrast different writers’ views in the light of the theory or theories that inform your approach to the text.’ Reading is thus essential since critical thinking needs to take into consideration the ideas of other writers and be informed by a theoretical framework. Otherwise, it becomes just ‘opinion’. Let’s take an example from a course on Shakespeare and consider this question: Is Othello a tragic hero, an evil murderer or a victim of Iago’s malice? Students’ answers to the question have to take into consideration the text of the play, the views of literary critics and possibly the approach to the character taken by directors and actors in some particular performances of the play. All these things must then be considered under a particular theoretical way of seeing the play, for instance, the historical and social context of Elizabethan England, psychoanalytical theory and/or feminist criticism.
It is a misconception and gross generalization that learners who have low levels of English or who come from particular cultures are less capable of critical thinking. Everybody is able to think and everybody can learn how to think critically. It just requires reading, training, mental discipline and willingness to see things from different points of view.
Some useful links: