commentary Tyson Seburn  

A step towards critical thinking

A valid buzz surrounds the importance of teaching students to think critically when reading, looking at visual media or listening to arguments.  Many international 1st-year university students are products of a believe-what-you’re-told, there-is-a-right-answer educational system.  As a result, questioning does not come naturally. And so, I want to devote a couple posts to ways I try to instigate this new ability.

Idiom origins revealed.  Or not.

In an initial lesson, as my program is integrated with a 1st year History course, I suggest to students that they are going to write an informative paper on life during the 1500s.  I ask them to describe what they imagine life at the time to be like.  Not surprisingly, they mention the poverty, the dirt, the lack of technology, the kings and queens. With these preconceptions now in place, since the internet is the go-to for initial research on an unfamiliar topic, we Google “life in the 1500s”. What results at the top is this website, a section of which I refer to below.

As you read through, you see that these preconceptions are confirmed. For example:

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, — hence the saying “dirt poor.”

What’s clever is plausible ideas are reinforced by explanations and references to common idioms (my personal favourite is “saved by the bell” at the end of #11).  I ask students how they feel about the information they’ve learnt from this site, to which many are impressed with the recognised idioms and their apparent origins.  I ask them if they believe everything–mostly silence and sheepish glances at each other follow.  They know because I’ve asked the question, the answer should be no.  Why would the teacher give us wrong information? Why would someone lie about this information so that others would be misled? 

I introduce the idea of red flags: warning signs, in this case, that should ring a critical thinker’s alarm bells.  After taking a look at some of the ways to evaluate the reliability of a website (University of California, Berkeley) like motivation, authority, currency and type of site.

Eyes squint the so-called facts.
…….Eyebrows raise.
…………..Trust dissipates.
…………………Skepticism seeps in.

An (convincing) open letter to educators

Next up: an impassioned video blog about why university education is no longer valuable.

I leave it up to students to thinking about his message critically.  Beyond comprehension questions and some guided questions (on the handout below), I give few correct/incorrect clarifications.

Surviving Pandora’s box

This awakening to the idea that information needs to be evaluated before it can be trusted seems to leave a number of students unsettled.  This Pandora’s box opens up to questioning what they’ve always held true about their own countries and high school education.  But they recover and are better for it.  Their initiation into critical thought may be disconcerting at first, but over time and with practice, it proves to help students build more reliable arguments and make informed decisions.

Inspired by Shelly Terrell’s Goal 6: investigate and instigate, increasing student ability to ask questions without defining what those questions must be or what the answers absolutely are allows them to develop evaluative skills at their own pace. What delightful surprise comes is a critical eye demonstrated on not only what information they receive, but that that they produce.

A related post, A reflection on teaching critical thinking, can be read here.

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27 thoughts on “A step towards critical thinking

  1. Brad Patterson

    Nice to finally find time to come by the blog, and soak up a good Ty read.

    Will be doing a workshop with Divya Brochier this summer on “6 hats thinking” and it’s been making me think critically about “critical thinking”.

    You hip to this brainstorming technique?

    1. seburnt

      There hasn’t been much Ty stuff to read around these parts this month. You picked a swell time to travel to internet-less reaches. =)

      What type of critical thought have you had about critical thought? How meta, we are. Are we in sync?

      1. Brad Patterson

        That movement within thought is often only encouraged in a binary way— right wrong, positive, negative, whereas there is so much more room to move in thought, analysis

        1) emotions
        2) lateral thinking
        3) constructive
        4) objective
        5) …

        When I think thinking critically, I think of the word which means de-proving something, being critical of it.

        Yeah… internet-less times are crucial every now and again though.


        1. seburnt

          I see your point and understand why you say this binary perspective. One thing I’ve found useful too (in addition to this lesson above) is to write the word ‘critical’ on the board initially and brainstorm with students what it may mean. Inevitably, they come up with the negative, whereas I find it important , essential even, to discuss that it is not about that, but rather about evaluating something, be it influences behind the author, reliability of website information or continuing to question what is presented.

          1. Brad Patterson

            you know i can’t help myself…


          2. seburnt

            “Censor” is a root or a result? That doesn’t seem clear. In any case, just from a spelling relationship, seems like a leap, unlike many other words you’ve shown connections between to us all. Meaning of judging or appraising, though, seems to fit right in.

  2. Dan Ruelle

    Wow, yet another fantastic post with impeccable timing, Tyson! In my university’s advanced EAP courses, critical thinking is a major component. In fact, the primary writing genre is a critical response essay to one or two articles.

    Introducing the concept of critical thinking to students, and more importantly, debunking the common misconception that critical thinking is an abstract and daunting skill that students have no prior experience with, is a tough challenge for teachers.

    Just yesterday I decided to get some student volunteers to record a few informal “chat at the cafe” videos to use for future classes, with each clip containing one student’s problematic argument / reasoning. We are hoping that by keeping it informal, (somewhat) real & authentic and down-to-earth, introducing the concept of critical thinking will be much less daunting.

    Coincidentally, the theme for the week that we introduce critical thinking is “The Value of Education” so your video is absolutely perfect for an activity on basic critical thinking. Thanks for that and will let you know how it goes!

    1. seburnt

      I’ve found that this introduction, as I mentioned, tends to blow some students’ minds, yet others seem largely unaffected, probably not realising its importance in their studies. Critical thinking is becoming more and more recognised in ELT environments.

      What is this “chat at the cafe” you mention? Like an ‘open conversation’ free for all? I’m interested to know what type of context students take or what types of arguments you expect from them.

      Thanks for coming by again. =)

  3. Carolyn

    I love this post. I also love your lesson (which I will use in my own class this week)! I was having a discussion with a friend on this exact topic the other day, but it was about adults in a society simply accepting whatever is published in their newspaper of choice. This point is valid for us as teachers too! How often have we blindly used a ‘tactic’? I refer to Scott Thornbury’s blog ‘An A-Z of ELT’ and his recent post ‘I is for Imitation’ ( I can honestly say that I had never critically thought about repetition in the classroom in any positive light. That blog post was like shining a light into the deep recesses of my brain to sweep out some of my cobwebs. Hopefully your exercise – with some of my own – bring a similar effect to my own students! Cheers!

    1. seburnt

      I’m glad you like this. Tell me about how it goes with your students and how you continue on and recycle it with your online students.

      I find it funny. Despite the fact that try as we might to empassion students with this new skill, I realise that even my own friends or family often just accept what they see or are told, particularly on the internet. It takes a certain amount of information literacy also before even native speakers think to question these things.

      And yes, we too as educators sometimes overlook this critical skill (pun!) when listening to what educators we respect suggest. Not what I suggest, of course. /cough/ 😉

      Cheers again!

  4. Kevin Stein

    Hey Tyson,

    Another fantastic post and top-notch lesson materials as well. Hope to use some of this with my higher level students. But the post also got me thinking about how to bring these types of issues into my lower level English classes. Most of my level 1 students (trouble with basic English skills) are perfectly satisfied with simply understanding the input. I don’t want to overload them, but maybe having them use just a little energy to think about the contents valididty would also be worthwhile. Gonna give it a try and see how it goes.

    Thanks again

    1. seburnt

      A very good point to think about – lower level critical thinking. How about introducing some advertisements that have minimal language on them, biased info perhaps, and suggesting they think of alternative words to describe it. On a related matter, even presenting some sentences that are a mix between fact (e.g. Water boils at 100C) and opinion (e.g. This water is hot) and having them learn to differentiate the two might be another route to try.

      Thanks for giving me food for thought!

  5. mura

    i am reading the Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser which is a great source of critical thinking ideas related to net technologies. although only ran a trial with a small group of 5 (multi-media) students they were very surprised when they discovered that their searches on the same keyword resulted in very different results. this lead onto a good discussion of the deep consequences for society of such an information bubble.
    ta for another great post tyson and enjoy end of semester!

    1. seburnt

      I’d be interested in reading more about it (if I had the time to read a whole book, that is). What engine were they using to search with? How did it bring different results (i.e. searching on Google with the same keywords would result in the same results)?

      1. mura

        they used google, it is because the drive with google since i think it was 2009 is towards ‘personalisation’ so depending on where you are, search history and other unknown (undisclosed) factors which google’s aglorithms use you will get different results.
        i really recommend the book.

        1. seburnt

          Really? Huh, I didn’t know that. Of course, if your students are all searching from within the same class, would that really alter the results?

  6. Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)

    I think your suggestion to Kevin regarding a way to start with lower levels is absolutely correct. One needs to be learn the markers that differentiate between facts and opinions before you can question (or be wary) of what you are reading.
    Regarding getting students to realize the importance of critical skills to their own lives – perhaps if we presented them with a situation very close to them. say, transferring to a different university. What does it mean if the ad says they are the best? in what way? etc.
    Thanks for another thought provoking post!

    1. seburnt

      Yes – facts vs opinions is something I’d used with lower levels many times before without ever really addressing it as “critical thinking”, but it most certainly is.

      Bringing in relevant topics like you suggested definitely adds personal importance. Of course, this too speaks of the reliability of information. Part of this boils down to motivation and perspective of the author. I used a weather report once to demonstrate this. Given the same report, how would different people interpret it and what to do for the weekend based on said weather.

      1. Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)

        Brilliant idea to use the weather report! I’ll be quoting you on that one!

        1. seburnt

          More to come! =)

  7. Cecilia Lemos

    I really like how you approached critical thinking with your students – especially the introducing the idea of raising red flags and the activity with the video. (Funnily enough I did such a similar activity with the video of David Crystal talking about how internet has changed English with a B1 group I have. Great minds, eh?). I intend to introduce the concept of raising red flags to my students as well.

    Like Naomi, I really liked the suggestion you gave Kevin – the second one, showing them how structures express things differently, opinions x facts, etc. Having a few beginner students myself I find the first one harder to put into practice because the students will not have enough language to express their thoughts accurately and (especially with adult students) not being able to do so it might be frustrating and demotivating for them.

    Look forward to reading more of your experimenting with critical thinking with your students. That and more of the thread you and Brad got going on 😉

    1. seburnt

      You’re right – the first may be challenging for low beginners. I was trying to think of how to introduce it to them and that was the first that came to mind, though I was also happier with the second option.

      For me, I have a couple lower level students mixed in with much more of an upper intermediate to advanced group of EAP students. Pitching critical thinking to them though, I have to go with the higher side as they then need to apply it to websites and articles they find – something I spend a lot of time using ARC to accomplish.

  8. Doonan

    I’m not sure if this will add a bit of spice to the converstion or fuel to the fire…

    The concept of critical thinking reflects a concept derived from roots in ancient Greek.

    The word ‘critical’ derives etymologically from two Greek roots: ‘kriticos’ (meaning discerning judgment) and ‘kriterion’ (meaning standards).

    The word implies the development of ‘discerning judgment based on standards.’

    Just my 2 cents worth.

    1. seburnt

      Thanks for your valuable 2 cents. =)

  9. AnnLoseva

    I read the post the day you published it and it’s only now that I”ve got a spare minute to leave a comment, arr(
    What I like best about the post is the four lines describing how skepticism seeps in. It’s getting visual! I”m a lot of a skeptic myself and I believe you must be one if you really want your students to find the way to question facts. Yet “question” does not imply “deny”, sound arguements are key. Yet even with arguements I”ve had shaky cases – what’s true for one, is so not true for another..
    I really like how you’re dealing with the problem, please deal more and let us know how that affects your students!

    1. seburnt

      Yes, skepticism is important, but one point I’d like to reiterate is that when students first ‘awaken’, so to speak, their skepticism tends to knock about their entire belief systems, which can be alarming for them. It’s important for us to also help them realise when and how to question.

  10. […] is based on “an Open Letter to Educators” by Dan Brown, which was first referenced in this post on critical thinking. The content of this post is a follow-up activity to this video we used in […]

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