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A reflection on teaching critical thinking

After reading the text, I now agree with the author’s opinion. This paraphrased quote, so common among my EAP students, establishes how critical thinking is not obviously innate when it comes to the materials used in class.  Critically evaluating materials varies depending on cultural background and previous exposure to the tools, but I’ve largely found that like blank slates, my students tend to take information at face value rather than deeply considering its validity and reliability.  On top of that, teaching critical analysis isn’t simply about relaying the tools with which to help evaluate these factors either.  Just as being blindly influenced by the materials, our lessons on critical thinking themselves can result in a simple regurgitation or misinterpretation of validity and reliability if students don’t actively participate in the discussion of how to evaluate these factors.  Critical thinking is an essential skill to develop with our students when it comes to their learning.  I’d like to emphasise the with and not the in regarding how to encourage this skill.

Critical ThinkingKarenne Sylvester asks of teachers in her Dogme Challenge #9, “Should we be teaching our students to think critically about the materials/opinions/news items we bring in to class with us?  That they bring in?” In a word–yes.  Stop here if you just want the simple answer.  Otherwise, to begin a more convoluted answer–yes, but.  Without the tools and practice of assessing reliability and validity, everyone would change their opinions a million times depending on what information they were exposed to.  Luckily or not, many of us stubbornly stick to opinions we’ve held for years and years either because of experience, restriction or ignorance.  Students, on the other hand, especially those entering the post-secondary phase of their lives, lack one, two or all three of these qualities, causing them to be willing receptacles for the wisdom bestowed upon them by their teachers.   With this, teachers hold in the hands a huge responsibility in the transfer of not only information but tools for skill development.  Even with the best of intentions, lessons on critical thinking can quickly spiral students into both ‘tape recorded versions’ of what we’ve taught them or ‘blenders’ that mix up what was taught with what was meant.  One example is a red flag I’d suggested students look out for in a lesson about reliability:  lack of referencing information.   The point was that if you take statistics or summaries at face value, you may be misled into believing inaccuracies (ie. An Open Letter to Educators videohistorical inaccuracies about medieval ownership of information), embellishments (ie. Marco Polo’s description of Hangzhouunfounded city statistics) or just plain misinformation (ie. Life in the 1500s – completely made up information) is true.  After a class of looking for this reference absenteeism, I was confronted with an abundance of assignments that used a ‘tape recorded version’ of this red flag (ie.  “Nicholas Kristoff’s 1492: The Prequel is not reliable because he did not reference his historical facts, like on Page 2″ – he didn’t need to;  he’s an historian and his facts are easily checked or common knowledge to other historians) or the ‘blender’ version (ie.  Wikipedia ends up being one of the most reliable sources of information out there because of the amount of footnotes it has) .  With simply relaying the tools to students and without an active student hand in discussing what these tools are and how they’re used, assessment of readings, videos and even lessons becomes less of a critical thinking exercise and more of a memorisation exercise.

This lack of active student involvement in determining how to think critically is a fallacy and one that a Dogme approach may counter.  Students need to be involved in their learning in order to feel more invested in and related to it.  The role of teacher, as with many topics, needs to be facilitator for the emergent ideas that arise when discussing how reliable materials provided and information read or watched are.  As a class, discuss what types of questions should be considered when approaching a reading or video.  Discuss why we should or shouldn’t believe the author to be a reliable source of information.  Evaluate together the circumstances and context under which the material was written.  Through this will students have a better understanding of not only how to but also why we should think critically.  Difficult themes and topics, whether they are current (eg. the Wikileaks, the governmental restrictions in Venezuala, the student riots in England, etc.) or historical, shouldn’t be avoided as they provide a more relevant platform for assessing ideas critically.  It all comes down to critical thinking being an essential skill to develop with not in our students.

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Mike Harrison

I certainly agree that we should be encouraging a critical attitude in the classroom, but yes, we cannot force this on to the students. Nor can every student run with an activity that involves critical thinking. I think of students in particular who may have missed primary and secondary education in their countries. I think it’s something that is really difficult to do in your own language, let alone if you are a second language learner.

Karenne Sylvester

I wonder… critical thinking is one of my main areas of interest and recently presented on it, however I personally find myself being critical about being critical… and how to, I don’t know, make sure that I am truly being objective even in the choice of material “I” choose to work with.

A conundrum.

I’ll give you an example.. I have a group of A2 students (I’m one of those people who don’t believe in shying away from tough topics just because I’m currently working with lower-levels of English ability) and lately we’ve been working on two things ESP:Automotive English and numbers.

I chose to show them this video today:

despite the fact that I knew they wouldn’t understand all of it.

We watched it and then I asked them

1. How did you feel?
(a lot of information)
(scared x 4)

2. Why?
(many numbers)
(the numbers make very bigger than the text)

3. What was the video trying to tell you?
(you have to help the car industry or the country will stop)

4. Who made the video? Why?
(the government) (to get the money)

5. Why were you afraid?
(power) (the numbers ~again) (the music)
(many information, not the same information)
(no jobs) (this can be Germany)

Etc, etc – I won’t go into the whole lesson here but on my way home, I did think to myself, why did I choose this particular video… what does it say about me and my thoughts or my political leanings…

Na ja, musings – great blog post, thanks so much for participating in the dogmeme!


George Might

Wow. Your program seems to be touching on some serious history, Tyson! I like the critical thinking materials you’ve used there; I’m familiar with that Life in the 1500s one and actually have used it myself. What I’m curious about is student involvement in determining how to think critically. Even after working on it for some time, my students still struggle with determining reliability, especially with author. They have a PhD? Reliable, at least as far as their concerned. It’s the easy way out, I think.

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