There’s a video on YouTube from Oxford University Press in which the presenter, the author of a coursebook for primary English language learners (‘Oxford Discover’), describes an activity where students have a short time to write some sentences about a picture they have been shown. Then, working in pairs, they read aloud their partner’s sentences and award themselves points, with more points being given for sentences that others have not come up with. For lower level, young learners, it’s not a bad activity. It provides opportunities for varied skills practice of a limited kind and, if it works, may be quite fun and motivating. However, what I found interesting about the video is that it is entitled ‘How to teach critical thinking skills: speaking’ and the book that is being promoted claims to develop ‘21st Century Skills in critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity’. The presenter says that the activity achieves its critical thinking goals by promoting ‘both noticing and giving opinions, […] two very important critical thinking skills.’

Noticing (or observation) and giving opinions are often included in lists of critical thinking skills, but, for this to be the case, they must presumably be exercised in a critical way – some sort of reasoning must be involved. This is not the case here, so only the most uncritical understanding of critical thinking could consider this activity to have any connection to critical thinking. Whatever other benefits might accrue from it, it seems highly unlikely that the students’ ability to notice or express opinions will be developed.

My scepticism is not shared by many users of the book. Oxford University Press carried out a scientific-sounding ‘impact study’: this consisted of a questionnaire (n = 198) in which ‘97% of teachers reported that using Oxford Discover helps their students to improve in the full range of 21st century skills, with critical thinking and communication scoring the highest’.

Enthusiasm for critical thinking activities is extremely widespread. In 2018, TALIS, the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (with more than 4000 respondents) found that ‘over 80% of teachers feel confident in their ability to vary instructional strategies in their classroom and help students think critically’ and almost 60% ‘frequently or always’ ‘give students tasks that require students to think critically.’ Like the Oxford ‘impact study’, it’s worth remembering that these are self-reporting figures.

This enthusiasm is shared in the world of English language teaching, reflected in at least 17 presentations at the 2021 IATEFL conference that discussed practical ideas for promoting critical thinking. These ranged from the more familiar (e.g. textual analysis in EAP) to the more original – developing critical thinking through the use of reading reaction journals, multicultural literature, fables, creative arts performances, self-expression, escape rooms, and dice games.

In most cases, it would appear that the precise nature of the critical thinking that was ostensibly being developed was left fairly vague. This vagueness is not surprising. Practically the only thing that writers about critical thinking in education can agree on is that there is no general agreement about what, precisely, critical thinking is. Lai (2011) offers an accessible summary of a range of possible meanings, but points out that, in educational contexts, its meaning is often rather vague and encompasses other concepts (such as higher order thinking skills) which also lack clarity. Paul Dummett and John Hughes (2019: 4) plump for ‘a mindset that involves thinking reflectively, rationally and reasonably’ – a vague definition which leaves unanswered two key questions: to what extent is it a skill set or a disposition? Are these skills generic or domain specific?

When ‘critical thinking’ is left undefined, it is impossible to evaluate the claims that a particular classroom activity will contribute to the development of critical thinking. However, irrespective of the definition, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the ability of educational activities to have a positive impact on the generic critical thinking skills of learners in English language classes. There can only be critical-thinking value in the activity described at the beginning of this post if learners somehow transfer the skills they practise in the activity to other domains of their lives. This is, of course, possible, but, if we approach the question with a critical disposition, we have to conclude that it is unlikely. We may continue to believe the opposite, but this would be an uncritical act of faith.

The research evidence on the efficacy of teaching generic critical thinking is not terribly encouraging (Tricot & Sweller, 2014). There’s no shortage of anecdotal support for classroom critical thinking, but ‘education researchers have spent over a century searching for, and failing to find evidence of, transfer to unrelated domains by the use of generic-cognitive skills’ (Sweller, 2022). One recent meta-analysis (Huber & Kuncel, 2016) found insufficient evidence to justify the explicit teaching of generic critical thinking skills at college level. In an earlier blog post https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2020/10/16/fake-news-and-critical-thinking-in-elt/ looking at the impact of critical thinking activities on our susceptibility to fake news, I noted that research was unable to find much evidence of the value of media literacy training. When considerable time is devoted to generic critical thinking training and little or no impact is found, how likely is it that the kind of occasional, brief one-off activity in the ELT classroom will have the desired impact? Without going as far as to say that critical thinking activities in the ELT classroom have no critical-thinking value, it is uncontentious to say that we still do not know how to define critical thinking, how to assess evidence of it, or how to effectively practise and execute it (Gay & Clark, 2021).

It is ironic that there is so little critical thinking about critical thinking in the world of English language teaching, but it should not be particularly surprising. Teachers are no more immune to fads than anyone else (Fuertes-Prieto et al., 2020). Despite a complete lack of robust evidence to support them, learning styles and multiple intelligences influenced language teaching for many years. Mindfulness, growth mindsets, grit are more contemporary influences and, like critical thinking, will go the way of learning styles when the commercial and institutional forces that currently promote them find the lack of empirical supporting evidence problematic.

Critical thinking is an educational aim shared by educational authorities around the world, promoted by intergovernmental bodies like the OECD, the World Bank, the EU, and the United Nations. In Japan, for example, the ‘Ministry of Education (MEXT) puts critical thinking (CT) at the forefront of its ‘global jinzai’ (human capital for a global society) directive’ (Gay & Clark, 2021). It is taught as an academic discipline in some universities in Russia (Ivlev et al, 2021) and plans are underway to introduce it into schools in Saudi Arabia. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1764601/saudi-arabia I suspect that it doesn’t mean quite the same thing in all these places.

Critical thinking is also an educational aim that most teachers can share. Few like to think of themselves as Gradgrinds, bashing facts into their pupils’ heads: turning children into critical thinkers is what education is supposed to be all about. It holds an intuitive appeal, and even if we (20% of teachers in the TALIS survey) lack confidence in our ability to promote critical thinking in the classroom, few of us doubt the importance of trying to do so. Like learning styles, multiple intelligences and growth mindsets, it seems possible that, with critical thinking, we are pushing the wrong thing, but for the right reasons. But just how much evidence, or lack of evidence, do we need before we start getting critical about critical thinking?

References

Dummett, P. & Hughes, J. (2019) Critical Thinking in ELT. Boston: National Geographic Learning

Fuertes-Prieto, M.Á., Andrés-Sánchez, S., Corrochano-Fernández, D. et al. (2020) Pre-service Teachers’ False Beliefs in Superstitions and Pseudosciences in Relation to Science and Technology. Science & Education 29, 1235–1254 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00140-8

Gay, S. & Clark, G. (2021) Revisiting Critical Thinking Constructs and What This Means for ELT. Critical Thinking and Language Learning, 8 (1): pp. 110 – 147

Huber, C.R. & Kuncel, N.R. (2016) Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 2016: 86 (2) pp.:431-468. doi:10.3102/0034654315605917

Ivlev, V. Y., Pozdnyakov, M. V., Inozemtsez, V. A. & Chernyak, A. Z. (2021) Critical Thinking in the Structure of Educational Programs in Russian Universities. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, volume 555: pp. 121 -128

Lai, E.R. 2011. Critical Thinking: A Literature Review. Pearson. http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/CriticalThinkingReviewFINAL.pdf

Sweller, J. (2022) Some Critical Thoughts about Critical and Creative Thinking. Sydney: The Centre for Independent Studies Analysis Paper 32

Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014) Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 265- 283.

Comments
  1. Charles Fournier says:

    Who is the author of this text?

  2. To me the word ‘critical’ bears negative connotations. From what I understand, you could substitute the word ‘analytical’ for ‘critical’ thinking and I would like that! In my limited retirement world the term as it stands simply means too many people feel entitled to air their opinions – just like me here.

  3. pauldummett says:

    Lots of good points here and I have to say John Hughes and I thought (struggled?) for a long time about how to frame the specific applications of critical thinking to ELT, as opposed to the wider purpose of critical thinking in education at large, which is to encourage the individual seek a fuller understanding of a thing rather than just accept what is put in front of them (uncritical thought) Whether breaking things down into individual ‘skills’ like ‘comparing’, ‘noticing’, or the old favourite ‘separating fact and opinion’ in this quest for a fuller understanding is useful is much more open to debate.
    One problem is clearly that people automatically think critical thinking applies only to thinking about ideas presented in a listening or reading text. What was the author’s real motive for saying / writing this? Are they trying to manipulate the listener / reader in some way? Did they omit or ignore some important facts or arguments? etc. Even though it involves some analysis of language, you might rightly question what this type of analysis has to do with foreign language learning.
    The conclusion that John and I came to was that Critical Thinking in ELT involved prompting learners to reflect (in a rational and reasonable way) about language:
    1 at word and sentence level, so that the learner can begin to form their own understanding of how the language works and become more independent users
    2 at text level, so that learners can understand different ways of presenting and organising information and ideas in the target language
    3 at idea level, because it is intrinsically more interesting to approach texts in this way and by consequence more memorable (we hope)
    In many cases it’s the kind of thing teachers do already when they ask leaners to compare the difference in meaning between two tenses. Or when they ask what the real purpose of a text is. They’re asking, ‘What’s really going on here?’ In some cases, it might form part of a metacognitive approach: Did you find that listening text difficult? Why, do you think? In other cases, e.g. reading a cooking recipe or listening to a dialogue in a shoe shop, deeper reflection may be unnecessary. It struck me as we finished the book that our exhortation to teachers and learners to balance activities which tested basic understanding with those that required more careful reflection was not dissimilar to Scrivener and Underhill’s in their Demand High approach, in so far as it helps us teachers to know if tangible learning is taking place.
    The problem, as you point out, is that critical thinking has now become a fashionable ‘practice’, a necessary badge to stick onto an activity and people may have ceased to think critically about what is really going on!

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