Today, you have a reading lesson with fifteen university students. The topic is about the environment, specifically the large amounts of plastic debris polluting the ocean. You go through all the phases of a typical reading lesson. You raise interest by showing them some photos, then you have them predict the type of information that will likely be covered.
For your first reading task, you decide to do a scanning exercise. You’ve already created some questions and the students have no problem scanning the text for specific information and coming up with the answers. For example, you ask, “How many tons of plastic waste are estimated to be in our oceans?”
Most of the students are able to quickly find the answer in the text and their hands shoot up, “Eight tons.” (By the way, that is an accurate figure)
The students do very well with these questions, and even the comprehension questions for the reading. You are quite happy, and move on to the next phase of your lesson plan. “Now, I’d for you to work in small groups and come up with a list of five causes for the large amount of plastic waste. Your plan was that after groups had discussed this, you would come up with one large list on the board, then have the students work on solutions to these issues. However, something strange happens. After you gave them the last task, and a time limit, there is complete silence. It’s eery.
You scramble to make sure the students understand the task. They do. You try to motivate them to come up with answers. Their faces are still blank. You give groups some examples, hoping to get them started. They just copy what you told them. What on earth is going on here?
What are Critical Thinking Skills?
The Oxford dictionary defines critical thinking as, “The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.”
In the world of TEFL, what we are referring to are the types of questions, and tasks that require the learner to think outside of the text or listening activity. They need to analyze the information and judge it based on their own experience, or other things they have read/heard. Critical thinking requires that the learner interact with the material, and not simply take it in.
Critical thinking encourages curiosity. It allows the learner to assess materials and the writer’s point of view. It forces them to back up their own statements with facts or evidence. It forces them to listen/read more carefully and offer feedback.
In the example that opened up this post, the critical thinking portion of the lesson was asking students to come up with their own ideas about the causes of plastic waste. However, depending on the cultural/educational background of the student, they may not be used to coming up with their own ideas. Many students are used to simply memorizing information or regurgitating what is in front of them. The experience of coming up with their own ideas and supporting them, may be wholly unfamiliar.
Still not sure what critical thinking is? Click the button below to gain access to a resource with examples of what critical thinking is and isn’t.
Why are They Important In a TEFL Classroom?
The primary focus of most TEFL classrooms is on productive, not receptive skills. Our goal as TEFL teachers is to make lessons as communicative as possible. If students are just passively taking language in, but not producing anything, they won’t get very far in the language learning process.
In fact, TEFL teachers often use listening activities and reading activities primarily as a means of getting conversations going, or having a context for a more involved speaking activity. Again referring to the example at the start of this post, the activity that the teacher had planned after the reading was a good idea. It would have given the students a context for cause and effect language, it would have given them a context to use vocabulary related to the ocean/environment/pollution/etc.
Critical thinking skills are generally necessary for people to become independent, productive and informed members of a society. In the setting of a language classroom, they are essential to get students using the language and engaging with the classroom materials. Even for low level young learners, we require them to share their likes and dislikes, not to simply repeat what is on the page. We want them to give a reason why they like something, not simply say they like it. We want them to describe their own family, say what they are allowed to do at school, etc. Without critical thinking, much of language learning wouldn’t be possible.
How Can a Teacher Help Students Develop this Skill?
Developing critical thinking skills in students where this is a relatively new concept, is difficult and requires patience. Remember that the student is now struggling on two fronts; they are learning how to do something that they aren’t used to AND they are being made to do it in a language other than their L1. Successfully developing critical thinking needs to be done in small steps and done consistently.
The teacher in the first example had the right idea, but maybe it was too much too soon. Instead of putting the pressure on small groups of students to come up with ideas, it may have been a better idea to come up with some examples as a whole class first. If no one was forthcoming with ideas in a whole class setting, then the teacher providing an example of their own would have been valid. Just remember to support the idea and show the students the thought process that brought you there. Once students are confident of the type of information that the teacher is looking for, they will likely feel more confident with their own ideas.
Here are some methods that should be used in a TEFL classroom:
- Appropriate questioning
- Analysis assignments
- Problem solving tasks
- Classroom debates
- Gathering evidence
If you’re still feeling confused about what questions and classroom tasks require critical thinking and which don’t, you can gain access to a resource with examples by clicking on the button below.