In an extract from ELT Teacher2Writer’s training module, Paul Dummett assesses the practice of critical thinking and sets two tasks to test your understanding of the practice.

Task 1: Getting the right mindset What is critical thinking? Why is critical thinking relevant to language learners? Task 2: Types of CT activity Writing your own critical thinking activities

Task 1: Getting the right mindset

Before you start this module, read this short article and answer the questions below:

In 1714 a rope suspension bridge in Peru snaps and the five people on the bridge fall to their deaths. By chance Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, witnesses this tragedy. He is not only troubled by what he has seen but also troubled by why this should have happened. Why at this precise moment? Why these five people? Accordingly, he sets out to find out something about the lives of each person and so to make sense of the tragedy. This short novel (only 124 pages long) is a beautiful reflection on the subject of destiny. It is not a true story, but some of the characters are based on real people. Written in wonderfully elegant prose, each chapter describes the life of one of the five people on the bridge: from the aristocratic Marquesa de Montemayor, who longs to be back in her native Spain, to the wise Uncle Pio, whose lifelong ambition to make a star of a young actress is in the end frustrated. Our interest is kept alive not by the mystery of their deaths, but by the compelling characters that Wilder has drawn so vividly: each eccentric in their own way, and each very human in their virtues and in their faults. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

From Heinle Elt. Life Advanced with DVD, 1E. © 2014 Heinle/ELT, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission.
1. What kind of book is being reviewed?
2. What is the book about?
3. What does the reviewer like / dislike about the book?
4. What is the author of the review trying to do?
5. What techniques does he employ to achieve this?
6. How does he succeed or fail?

Without knowing it, perhaps, you have just applied critical thinking techniques to understanding a piece of discourse. In other words, you have not only examined the information in the article (questions 1-3), you have also enquired more deeply about the author’s motives, knowledge and skills in putting this information across (questions 4-6). You can check your answers in the Key by clicking the link under ’Related resources’.

What is critical thinking?

The Open University defines Critical thinking (CT) as ‘the process of applying reasoned and disciplined thinking to a subject.’ In other words, it helps us to think curiously and independently about the information put before us. Now, more than ever before, CT is relevant because so much information is available to us through the internet and much of this is either second-hand, unattributed or unverified.

CT is a cognitive approach to learning and is often associated by educators with ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’, a pyramid of cognitive learning formulated in 1956 which begins with the most straightforward elements of thinking and works up to the highest levels of cognitive thought. With a couple of recent modifications and interpretations it basically comes down to this (Fig. 1).

ELTTeacher2Writer_Critical thinking_fig1

The first step, Remembering, is the ability to recall information that has been presented; the next, Understanding, is the ability to interpret it; Applying means taking this new knowledge and applying it in another situation; Analyzing means understanding how constituent parts relate to each other and the whole; Evaluating involves making considered judgements about the information; and the final step, Creating, entails the creation of original discourse or ideas from what has been learned and considered.

Now, it would be very handy if we could simply translate these steps into a series of CT exercises that our language learners practise in linear fashion: reserving exercises which involve the lower levels of cognitive thought for lower levels of language ability and asking higher-level language learners to apply the higher-level skills (analyzing, evaluating and creating). But, for me at any rate, that misses the point of critical thinking and I don’t think Bloom ever intended these steps to be used in a strictly linear fashion. Rather what we need to do with teaching CT is generally to help students develop a critical disposition in both receptive and productive skills. But what is a critical disposition? Here are a few examples of what a person disposed to think critically does: 

  • questions assumptions (their own included)
  • thinks through the consequences of a line of reasoning
  • looks for evidence and examines it carefully
  • considers alternative ideas
  • is aware of how language choice can influence ideas
  • tries out and tests new ideas

Why is critical thinking relevant to language learners?

Learners will need to use their English in one of three contexts: academic life, working life or social life (travel, culture, socializing). In all of these contexts (but especially the first two), it will help if they approach information and ideas in a thoughtful way. Whereas in the UK we tend towards guided discovery and nurturing independent thinking in education, this is not true of all cultures: some still favour a more rote-learning approach. So by encouraging a more cognitive approach, CT training should also help to stimulate discussion and ideas in the classroom. At the same time it will encourage learners to think more critically and curiously about the language itself, casting aside assumptions and thinking more enquiringly about how it works and how it is used to serve different purposes.  

Having read all this, you are probably thinking that CT applies to higher levels (B1+ and above) and you would be right insofar as anyone needs to be able to understand the information in front of them before they can begin to think critically about it. But that is not to say that training in CT habits should not begin at an early stage (A2 or B1). In business English classes at these levels, learners are taught basic business communication skills, even if they do not yet have the language at their disposal to exploit them fully. They just need more support.

You may also imagine that CT applies mainly to the receptive skills – reading and listening – and, again, you would be largely right. But it can also be applied to evaluate the learner’s own writing or speaking against a certain set of criteria.

Task 2: Types of CT activity

Look at this list of typical CT activities (1-10). Then say which activityif any – each of the CT exercise rubrics (A-H) is practising.

CT activities

1.   identifying the writer’s / speaker’s aims and whether they were achieved
2.   identifying the main argument and sub-arguments
3.   evaluating whether the evidence provided supports these arguments
4.   understanding the assumptions behind an argument
5.   separating fact from opinion
6.   inferring meaning
7.   analyzing how the organization of a text affects its impact
8.   recognizing different language techniques
9.   comparing ideas in a piece of discourse
10. identifying what is missing or is superfluous

CT exercise rubrics

A.   Reading between the lines – Listen again and say which of these statements (A-C) the author would probably agree with.
B.   Emotive adjectives – Look at paragraph 2 and find three adjectives that have an emotive rather than an objective quality.
C.   Summarizing – Find a sentence in paragraph 3 that best sums up what the writer is saying
D.   Relevance – Listen again to the introduction. What piece of information does the speaker give which is not relevant to the discussion.
E.   Purpose – Who are you writing the letter for? What do you hope to achieve with this letter? Do you think it will be successful?
F.   Examples – The writer describes good habits and bad habits. Look at the examples (A-D) below. Are these examples of good or bad habits?
G.  Sequencing – At what point in the narrative does the speaker begin the story – the beginning, middle or end? Why is this do you think?
H.   Close reading – Read the article again and say if these statements (1-6) are True (supported by fact), False (not supported by fact) or Ambiguous (only partly supported)

Now say at which level (A2 to C1) you think each of these activities could usefully be used (the wording in the rubric could be adapted slightly, of course). You can check your answers by clicking the link under ’Related resources’.

Writing your own critical thinking activities

The list of CT activities in Task 2 is not exhaustive, but you should be getting a much clearer idea of what CT activities are by now. If you’d like to look at further examples of CT exercises, take a look at some of the following:

The Oxford EAP series
Heinle’s Pathways series
Life series National Geographic Learning

In all these sources, you will see two things: the application of CT to longer pieces of discourse, where ideas are developed and synthesized; and a clear distinction between basic comprehension exercises and CT exercises. We’re going to look at some criteria for writing CT exercises for both receptive and productive skills, but it’s important to keep these two overarching principles in mind.

Remember also that when writing CT exercises for lower levels (A2 and B1), the learner will need more support. So, rather than asking ‘What examples does the author give to support this view?’, it would be better to list three examples (A,B,C) and ask ‘Which of these examples supports the writer’s view?’   

You may occasionally choose a text or listening passage with a clear CT focus already in mind. For example, you come across an article that presents the case for climate change denial in a way that is not very convincing – it’s subjective, polemical and not backed up by many facts. But more often than not you will have chosen your text for another reason (to stimulate discussion or to practise a particular structure or function). In these cases, you will need to choose the CT activity that is most appropriate to the text (if none seems to be, because it is a very straightforward text, then follow your instinct and do not apply CT to it.) Here are some guidelines for how to do this:  

Read or listen to the text and ask yourself these questions:

a. What’s really going on here? What is the speaker or writer trying to do? 
b. How effective are they at doing this? Is all the content accurate, relevant and adapted to the purpose?
c. What part does organization and language choice play, if any, in conveying the message?

If we just go back and examine the text in Task 1, the answers will be something like this:

The writer is writing a review of a book that he has really liked and wants you to read. As well as saying that explicitly at the end, he does two other things:
1. praises the book throughout (beautiful reflection, wonderfully elegant prose, compelling characters);
2. immediately draws you into the novel by setting the scene and leaving you in suspense.

So, either of these following two CT exercises would be appropriate:

A. Language choice: Adjectives and adverbs – Find and underline adjectives that the writer uses to recommend this book. What is the author’s aim in using these adjectives?
B. Identifying different elements – The elements that can be included in a book review are:

  • the reviewer’s opinion
  • the author’s background
  • a general background to the story or subject
  • a brief outline of the plot
  • a description of the writing style

Which elements does the writer include and in what order? Do you think this is effective? Why? Why not?