Critical Thinking in EFL Classrooms


Lal Bahadur Rana

This article discusses what critical thinking is, why it is important for second or foreign language learners and analyses whether or not it can be applicable to teaching English as a foreign language in the contexts of Nepal. If it is applied, what kinds of challenge are likely to occur and how the teachers who practice critical thinking can overcome them.

On defining critical thinking

Critical thinking refers to a type of lateral thinking that enables individuals to analyze and evaluate information about a situation or phenomenon or a problem and to make appropriate decisions that befit in their contexts. As a matter of fact, it is the thinking process through which people tend to gather knowledge, deconstruct the gathered knowledge and create new knowledge. The people who think critically do not take anything for granted, no matter who says.  Instead, they raise vital questions and problems, formulate them clearly, gather and assess relevant information, use abstract ideas, think open-mindedly and communicate effectively with others.

Critical thinking, like many other phenomena, has been defined variously by many scholars. So it is worth discussing some of those definitions. Ennis (1989  defines critical thinking as a “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do”. This definition implies that critical thinking enhances our judgmental ability” (as cited in Fisher 2011, p. 4). Similarly, Beyer (1995) is of the same opinion and maintains that critical thinking means reasoned judgments. Kelley and Browne (1994) maintain that critical thinking consists of an awareness of a set of interrelated critical questions, plus the ability and willingness to ask and answer them at appropriate times. For Paul (2003), critical thinking is that mode of thinking about any subject, content or program in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charges of the structures inherent in thinking or imposing intellectual standard upon them. Likewise, Lohani et al. (1998) also define critical focusing on standards to be maintained. According to them, critical thinking is consciously observing, analyzing, reasoning, and evaluating, according to proven standards. To conclude, critical thinking is that mode of thinking which stimulates higher level of thinking in individuals, and enables them to take rationale decisions analyzing different contexts skillfully and wisely.

Why critical thinking

To my knowledge, the teachers of English in Nepal carry out their teaching activities focusing on contents or information only, because their main focus is to facilitate learners become proficient in English, rather than developing higher order of thinking in them. In other words, our teaching learning activities are confined to knowledge and comprehension level only. Consequently, we are not able to help our students develop higher order thinking skills such as of application, analysis, evaluation and creating. However, it does not mean that the adherents of critical thinking deny the importance of information; rather they maintain that learners should go beyond the information level, because in real life situations learners need to possess higher order of thinking skills in order to face their challenges. If we believe that the education that we impart to our learners should cater to their needs, we should conduct our teaching and learning activities following the framework and strategies that adhere to critical thinking. It is because critical thinking encourages learners to think independently, share their ideas, respect others’ opinions-be they against or in favor of them etc. To put it other way, learners are likely to foster human rights, democratic norms and values just by carrying out small tasks in classrooms, because they sub-consciously build up the knowledge that there is power and pleasure in accepting the existence of others.

In the post conflict scenario of Nepal, the importance of  teaching and learning of critical thinking can hardly be exaggerated, because the students who have been studying at schools and colleges have got the hangover of the conflict in the past. They have lost the abilities to raise questions against any issues or problems, no matter how bad they feel. The ability to think critically is especially important for students living in a country with political and socioeconomic problems, for it will help them to look at issues from different viewpoints and become independent thinkers and responsible citizens (Shaila and Trudell, 2010). The students who have been studying at schools and colleges have bittersweet experiences of insurgency, which seem to be deeply rooted in their minds. If we follow the ideology of critical thinking in our classrooms, learners will be able to analyze those experiences through different perspectives and make sure that they will respect and make others respect human rights, democratic norms and values, laws of the land, individual freedom etc.

Although Tribhuvan University has prescribed the courses such as ‘Reading, Writing and Critical Thinking’ in B. Ed. and ‘Critical and Creative Thinking’ in B.A., these courses are also taught and learned focusing on contents. Lecture is the only classroom activity for teaching of those courses. Because of this system, students heavily depend on teachers and begin to memorize the information with the faint hope of reproducing in the examination so that they can pass the examination to be administered once a year. They think that teacher is the bank of knowledge and therefore they take whatever teachers provide them for granted. Thus, we are not preparing learners to be independent thinkers, but blind supporters of certain -isms or persons, which has resulted deadlocks in every sector of our country.

In order for a good learning to take place, three perspectives- materials, methodology and pedagogy play pivotal roles, therefore, all these three aspects should simultaneously be changed. Of these three perspectives, bringing about the changes in the pedagogical perspectives is the most challenging task. Therefore, we tend to change learning materials only, retaining the same teaching and testing systems. Therefore, despite the implementation of good syllabuses, the result remains the same.  Nowadays, I am fully convinced that without bringing about changes in classroom activities, we cannot obtain the desired outcomes. As far as I know, strategies to be followed while conducting classes following the principles of critical thinking can be very instrumental to help learners develop their proficiency or competence in second language and foster higher order of thinking skills at the same time.

Application of critical thinking in EFL classrooms

The application of critical thinking in EFL or ESL classrooms is quite possible, because the strategies such as Think Pair Share (TPS), quick write, know- want to know- learned (KWL), pen in the middle, jigsaw, predictions by terms ,debate etc.  prescribed by critical thinking are almost familiar to the teachers of English. Similarly, the ABC (Anticipation, Building knowledge, and Consolidation) framework followed in teaching following critical thinking is very much similar to the PWP (Pre-, While and Post) or BWA (Before, While and After) framework used in teaching reading and listening.

In the anticipation stage, teachers set contexts for carrying out the main tasks using learners’ experience or previous knowledge so that learners can easily understand the main texts. Similarly, in building knowledge stage, learners receive new information, or ideas, and consolidation stage learners consolidate what they have learnt in a lesson going beyond the texts so that their learning can be permanent or automatic, because the learners are provided with the opportunities to assimilate the new knowledge with their real life experiences.  Thus, it seems that ABC and PWP or BWA frameworks are different terminologically only. However, it is not true. There are certain differences between these frameworks. The PWP or BWA framework is generally used for teaching receptive skills- listening and reading, whereas the ABC framework is applicable to any kind of teaching items or subjects. The striking difference between them is that, in the former, the teachers are much concerned on how they can include the activities as per the six levels of cognitive domain given by Bloom (1956), but   in the latter teachers focus on only how they could help learners develop their language proficiency.

While we are teaching English, we teach different kinds of texts such as essays, poems, stories, memoirs, biographies, dramas, novels, etc. In order to teach these discourses, we can very wisely utilize critical thinking strategies, which can help us shift our activities from teacher centered to student centered. These strategies can help us dissect texts into various pieces and analyze each piece with some criteria or standards.   If we apply ABC framework with suitable strategies, we are sure to ‘improve today and create a better tomorrow’ Chapman (2007). It is because teachers will not only help students develop their abilities to communicate effectively, but also the abilities to make appropriate decisions taking wider perspectives of their social and cultural lives into their account.

The above discussion implies the fact that we can apply critical thinking strategies in EFL or ESL classes successfully. The objectives of English curricula should not be circumscribed to linguistic factors alone. They should include the art of critical thinking. It is because, in order to be proficient in a language, learners need to use creative and critical thinking through the target language.

 Challenges

 In course of implementation, few challenges can easily be envisioned, which need to be faced by all teachers of English collaboratively. Most of the students focus on linguistic factors; rather than higher level of thinking. Thus, the development of critical thinking in language classroom seems to be a by-product of teaching English. To some extent, it seems to be true as well, because relatively a large number of students struggle for the improvement of linguistic abilities in English. Thus, for those students whose English proficiency is not fairly good, developing critical thinking in them seems to be a far-reaching goal. My own experience in ESL classrooms shows that students are engaged in higher level of thinking if they are provided with opportunities to use their native language in the discussions of different kinds of texts selected for them. In other words, many students have good ideas, but due to the lack of good command over English, they lag far behind.

Another challenge is that most of our teaching learning activities are guided by testing. To be specific, teachers in Nepal tend to teach what are likely to be asked in the examinations; rather than what are important for learners to learn. Most of the examinations at schools, colleges and universities contain test papers that are limited to knowledge and comprehension levels. If an examiner happens to construct papers including the questions which require students to use their higher level of thinking, the examinees tend to claim that the questions are out of syllabi, which results into re-administration of the examination.

Courses to be taught and learnt, on the other hand, are highly challenging both in terms of length and contents. Teachers hardly ever finish the courses just by doing building knowledge stage only, let alone anticipation and consolidation. Moreover, some teachers are likely to show their reluctance to change their stereotypical teaching techniques. Critical thinking emphasizes that learners should learn to analyze the same texts or situations through different perspectives. Thus, the teachers who follow critical thinking strategy are sure to go beyond the texts spending much time on the same lesson. So the implementation of critical thinking strategies will require comparatively more time than in the ways the teachers tend to teach. In some cases, large number of students in the classroom will also pose some challenges. The government of Nepal has specified that in a standard classroom there should be fifty students. In colleges or universities one hundred and the above students study in a classroom. Most of the strategies prescribed by critical thinking methodology seem to be appropriate for the classes which consist of some twenty to thirty students.

All new things in Nepal are introduced following top down modality of implementation. Teachers in the classrooms can adopt the innovative ideas and strategies in the classrooms, but they may not be supported by the personnel in high ranks or positions. The examiners are also not very much well-informed in the use of critical thinking in  setting question papers that can check the different levels of critical thinking. If there are incompatibilities in teaching and testing, it can exacerbate the result of our academic institutions.

Possible Solutions

Both the teachers and students should be crystal clear about the fact that language is not used in vacuum; neither is it used without contents. In order to develop language proficiency, we need subject matters to be discussed or studied or taught by using a target language. So both knowledge and language get developed simultaneously. Surely, the critical thinking strategies if applied properly will stimulate learners to develop higher levels of thinking and make them feel like expressing, sharing, doubting, debating, discussing, etc. At the same time, when they feel the need of expressing their ideas, they automatically acquire their target language i.e. English in the context of Nepal. Undoubtedly, in the initial days, learners can be confused and will even think that they are not learning, nor will they think that their teacher is teaching, but their perseverance to try a new way of learning will certainly count in the long run. It is because almost all the strategies to be used in critical thinking enhance learner-centeredness.

Syllabus designers, textbook writers, examiners certainly play significant roles in deciding what instructional techniques and evaluation schemes should be followed in a particular program. They should know the fact that critical thinking is an important way of imparting education to the students. These three key stakeholders should collaborate and take initiatives to make textbooks, exam papers and teaching learning activities critical thinking friendly.

Conclusion

In conclusion, critical thinking is one of the most thought provoking methods of teaching, which can be implemented in any discipline. From the above discussion, it can be discerned that this methodology can be applied in teaching English as a foreign language, disregarding to whether the learners are in elementary level or advanced level. The implementation of critical thinking can help learners bring about positive changes in the ways they think and expand the horizons of their knowledge. Therefore, if it is implanted in ESL classrooms, the learners will not only build up communicative competence in English, but also intellectual traits.

References

Atkinson D. 1997. A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 31 (1), 71-94.

Barbara, L. and Wendy, W. 2006. Critical Thinking Framework for any Discipline. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 17: 160-166.

Chapman, D. E. 2007. The Curricular Compass: Navigating the Space between Theory and Practice. Thinking Classroom. 5: 29-34.

Craford, A. et al. 2005. Teaching and Learning Strategies for the Thinking Classroom. Kathmandu: Goreto Nepal

Fisher A. 2011. Critical Thinking: An Introduction. New Delhi: Cambridge University.  Press.

Gardner P.S. 2009. New Directions. Reading, Writing and Critical Thinking. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Lohani, S. et al.(eds). 1998. Critical and Creative Thinking. Kathmandu: Modern Printing Press.

Mahmuda Y. S. and Trudell. B. 2010. From Passive Learners to Critical Thinkers: Preparing EFL Students for University Success. English Teaching Forum. 3: 2- 9.

Shea, G. I. 2009. Public Speaking Tasks in English Language Teaching. English Teaching Forum. 47: 18- 23. Underwood, M. 1989. Teaching Listening. London: Longman

5 comments

  • Surendra Raj Adhikari

    As for me, Mr. Rana’s consensual understanding, theoretical backup of critical thinking and Nepalese context seem to contradictory when I remember the poor students who have to be forced to think critically in target language. His assertive view may not address the sporadic ethical professional English teachers’ practice which has been making students think critical regardless of the syllabus , textbook and examiners – anyway, that’s up to teachers!

  • The author brings some very useful literature on the topic, and also provides a quick review of why critical thinking may be a challenging pedagogical endeavor in our cultural context when there are hierarchies and constraints, e.g. exams. I was sort of thinking– after a theoretical overview, LBR would present some samples/examples explaining how he includes critical thinking component in his teaching. I hope he will provide some as follow up comments. However, the post in itself is useful to provide a concise overview of the concept in language pedagogy. To add to that, as LBR, also implies, we may not need ‘courses’ or ‘policies’ in critical thinking (if there are, it is still better); we can weave them into our everyday lessons with our teaching techniques or classroom management strategies.

    Sureshji’s comment –“the poor students who have to be forced to think critically in target language”– also raises a genuine concern regarding how and to what extent we incorporate critical thinking in teaching a ‘second’ language in which students hardly have communicative ability, perhaps. Another way to think would be probably, even if I am teaching English in English, I think it would not be a bad idea to switch back and forth to English and students’ native language or allow students to use their L1 in pair or group works when they feel a need, for an informed purpose, e.g. for critical thinking or reflection. In this way, students can surpass a L1 proficiency barrier.

    I have long been interested not just to ‘know’, what critical thinking is, but how I can make it a part of everyday teaching experience. I am teaching an SLA course for BA students now and I try to address CT part in the following way

    1. Students read a book chapter and write a couple sentences as their reactions, usually starting with: I like, I doubt, I agree, I don’t quite disagree… , and then they explain ‘why’. In this way this allows them to go beyond the reading, as well as question the author or his/her arguments from the reading

    2. Students try to see what aspects of research findings or author arguments seem useful to explain their real life experience or use the insights for other purposes in their real life. For example, students read a chapter on bilingualism, and most of them commented that they would want to raise a bilingual child.

    3. Students watch a documentary/video and critically summarize the main story. For example, students watched a documentary on a case of Genie regarding critical period hypothesis, and commented on the ethical issues concerned with this classic ‘experiment’ on Genie.

    I will add more points later. Thanks for reading. My ideas may not be applicable wholesale in all contexts, but I think they can be adopted and adapted.

  • Uttam Gaulee

    In the face of widespread acceptance that our students lack critical thinking skill, developing such skills in our students is really critical. Mr. Rana has done a great job showing how these skills can be grafted into existing ELT curriculum as well possible necessary changes for making a seamless transition into making students “think” at higher level –e.g. in the test items. Mentioned as it is in the article is the caviate of the “inertia” and the resistence to change. That part may not work as easily. Also, it is often argued that thinking skill tends to decrease when you have to deal with a language that you’re not immersed into. This makes our venture still demanding. Yet, the problem is ours, so lets’ discuss.

  • Subas Mahato

    I’m very thankful for this blog…..I’m going to write my thesis on this topic

    • Subas, When you finish writing the thesis, you should write a blog entry for Choutari here. Maybe you can share both your experience of writing an ELT thesis, as well as your experience of reading the blog. I am a member of the past team of Choutari editors, and I used to be excited when younger scholars joined the forum in one way or another. I’m sure the new team will be as enthused by your joining the conversations here.

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