Critical Thinking Strategies for Resolving Challenges in ELT
This is a short narrative write-up in which I attempt to explore some challenges emerged in the Nepalese ELT context based on my experiences and observations of more than a decade. Here, I reflect on how critical thinking strategies proved very useful for helping my students learn English. In addition, I have included a lesson plan along with the materials.
Teaching English in Nepal was started during Ranarchy from Darbar High School hiring English teachers. It was further expanded during post-democracy era when schools mushroomed in Nepal. Then, English was taken as a stimulating vehicle of an ideal culture and development. It was formally introduced in schools and colleges after the recommendation of National Education System Plan (NESP) 1971. At that time, it was taught as a subject; rather than a language for communication. Neither language skills nor aspects were focused; but the content was solely focused. The trend exists even today after more than two scores of years.
Nowadays, English is being introduced as a medium of instruction form primary schools to universities in Nepal. Thus we can say that there has been paradigm shift in English language teaching in Nepal, because it has become a means to achieve certain ends. Nevertheless, whether or not we should use it as a medium of instruction has already become a matter of debate and discussion. To comply with the new tradition, new methods and pedagogies have been searched; and courses have been prepared with a view to preparing learners compete globally. However, teachers who handle those courses have still hangovers of their experiences, which is why they encounter many challenges in their classes. These challenges have caused students’ poor performance in English.
English Language Teaching in Nepalese Education
In Nepal, English is taught as a compulsory subject from the first grade and this continues up to Bachelor Level in formal education. But the bitter truth is that the majority of the graduates feel frustrated when they have to ask for a cup of tea in English. Let’s not talk those who fail in only English and therefore are deprived of being awarded the degree. This has made every English teacher in Nepal think over what we have been doing from ages. It is said that if the students do not learn/perform well, the teacher has not taught well’. If this is to be taken for granted, we have not taught them in the way we should have (in many of the cases). All students/guardians/parents have owned considerable space, even the rights to blame to the teachers for the pitiable English language-learning situation in Nepal. But only teachers are not responsible for this. I discuss the causes of students’ poor proficiency over English in the following few paragraphs before I discuss how critical thinking can be introduced in the Nepalese ELT context to achieve the expected outcome in learning English.
The government itself does not formulate any policies to make education state-funded. There are two types of schools in the country, viz. the government aided community schools and the privately owned boarding schools. Children from the rich families receive the awaited English medium quality education and lead themselves to better careers, but the children from middle class families receive lower-quality English medium education and are denied better career opportunities, let alone the fate of those students from poor families who are compelled to receive Nepali medium education. This has created a huge gulf in the community (Shrestha, 2009). Although the policy of the government itself has made the level of English proficiency of the students from the poorer background inferior to those from well off families, they have to attend the same School Leaving Certificate Examination popularly nicknamed as the iron- gate. Passing through this gate is mandatory to open up the window of higher education ahead.
The discrimination even does not end at this point. Those students have to face different entrance examinations to get admitted in the subjects of science, technologies, etc., and the test writers write the tests in English to which the students from the Nepali medium schools are less familiar with. English only hinders their performance resulting them to opt the subjects from humanities and education faculties. Their English does not improve in the over-crowded large classes there among the heterogeneous students (in terms of their linguistic, cultural, geographical, age, and sex related factors among others) either. What I mean to say is that the majority of our students studying B. Ed. are those students who are deprived of getting so-called English medium quality education in school level.
The weaknesses do not only go to the government. Teachers teaching English in school level use grammar translation method and chorus drills in the classroom though the textbooks are written according to CLT and task based learning (TBL) (Shrestha, 2009). There is mismatch between the theory and practice in the sense that even the trained teachers do not materialize the theories they have learned into practices. In fact, the teachers have been teaching the way their teachers taught them. That is to say, they all have been using grammar translation method very extensively. Furthermore, the number of students in the public institutions: be they in schools or campuses is very large. Sometimes, it exceeds hundreds of students in campus classes (especially in compulsory English). The classroom management and the school practices (to be fully based on the teacher and a single textbook) being continued are posing challenges in ELT.
The overall challenges of ELT in Nepal can be listed in the following points:
• Lack of well trained teachers
• Gap between theory and practice (of the tutors)
• Mixed ability heterogeneous students (in terms of age, sex, linguistic knowledge, culture, etc.) in the classes
• Over-crowded large classes
• Poor physical facilities of the classrooms and the institutions
• Over- dependence on the teachers because of the assertive, dogmatic behavior of the students resulted by teacher/spoon fed instruction instead of student centered teaching.
• Treating English as a subject rather than a language
• Lack of practice to discuss local context in English (nativization of English), i.e. dreaming for the communicative competence; rather than thinking about intercultural communicative communication
• Dual-education system in the school (government aided for the poor and boarding for the rich)
• Avoidance of the entrance examinations to opt English based on the aptitude and level of the students.
• The way questions are asked in exams/examination system (carelessness of the test writers and examiners that has encouraged students to depend on guess papers and plagiarized bazar notes/ test writers do not write the tests creatively and critically how can we imagine creative and critical performance from the side of the students).
• Absence of social use of English elsewhere outside the classroom (even by the faculty members): Both teachers and students do not feel comfortable in using English as a means of communication outside the classroom.
• The practice of exam-oriented instruction where the students ask the possible questions to be asked in the examination right from the beginning of the courses and teachers try to focus on them.
• The teachers are not well paid and are compelled to search for additional jobs. As a result, they are less motivated to their professional development and do not prepare well and try their best to carry out classroom researches.
• Fear and anxiety of the students in English language classes
• Inability of the teachers and students to concentrate in teaching and learning
• Unwillingness to think critically/ absence of critical thinking practice in teaching and learning.
The challenges mentioned above can be lessened (if not avoided) if we, language teachers try critical thinking strategies in English classes. Students can activate their schemata, i.e. their prior knowledge about English and the whole world by critical thinking. Critical thinking leads students towards goal directed problem solving using their cognitive skills and strategies that guide them towards possibilities of desirable outcomes. In the paragraphs below, I discuss how critical thinking strategies can be used to overcome the challenges in Nepalese ELT context.
Critical Thinking in Nepalese ELT Context
Critical thinking requires learners follow inquiry-based learning. We can teach English to our students involving them in each activity we carry out in the classroom. Students exercise the freedom of answering questions and expressing their opinions during the class. Critical thinking can also build the habits of persuading others by rational arguments. We can change the class into thinking class to promote ELT getting the students do different activities in the class. Bowell and Kemp (2006) mention:
We do many things with language – state a fact, ask a question, tell someone to do something, insult someone, promise to do something, swear an oath, make a threat, tell a story, recite a poem, sing a song, say a character’s line in a play, cheer on a football team (p. 4).
This way we can make the students do something by themselves even if the thing is small. Critical thinking urges the students to raise questions to explore the truth or knowledge. It does not lead them to take things for granted. As a result, they do not believe on dogmas rather on the process of rational reasoning. We can develop the habit of critical thinking among our students through learning and training. We can encourage them to question, examine, create, solve, interpret, apply, and debate rather than only memorizing which, of course, minimizes the void between theory and our practices. In other words, critical thinking aims at the higher order thinking from the side of the students instead of imitating and parroting the content to reflect it in the examination as the answer of the questions-those marked as VVI during instruction (because they are asked repeatedly).
Critical thinking develops the feel of ownership of their learning among the students. Ultimately, the learners become independent and life-long learners. They construct their knowledge themselves from their own rationality and experiences of the real world around them. They develop the habit of observing, noticing and locating the facts, guessing rationally, building assumptions and hypothesis, experiencing their opinions, arguing, analyzing critically, and creating. They enter into the realm of rationality and problem solving.
Various strategies of critical thinking such as think/pair/share (T/P/S),know/want to know/learn (K-W-L), what/so what/now what, mix/freeze/pair, quick write, pens in the middle, value line, directed reading activities (DRA), jig-saw, one stray/three stray, walk around/talk around, reciprocal teaching, save the last word for me, etc. can be used to encourage even the shy students in language classrooms. We get opportunities to be rough-tuned and even-handed in the class while using any of these activities among the students. They also make the students autonomous in their learning. Students become accountable to what they do/ do not do during the class activities.
These strategies of critical thinking are very engaging and interactive. I have found my students encouraged and interested during the classroom instruction with these activities. They feel happy to share their ideas among others. Each of the activities discussed above make the classroom lively and student centered. Students do not hesitate to ask questions with their friends if such activities are introduced. They do not only depend on their teachers and build the habit of thinking for the solutions/ answers of the questions/problems on their own. It, ultimately, discourages the exam only oriented instruction rather helps to achieve the objectives of the course/lesson creating an English environment at least in the classroom. I have seen my students taking/using English even in the absence of teachers in and outside the classroom being equipped with such strategies that demand group/pair participation.
Similarly, I follow the ABC phases of critical thinking approach in English language teaching called anticipation, building knowledge and consolidation. At the stage of anticipation, I contextualize the content to use English and ask students what they already know about it. I set the purpose of learning and clarify any misconceptions if they have about the topics under discussion. Students focus their attention on the topic and derive the context for understanding new ideas. In the second stage of building knowledge, I bring the learners into contact with new information, let them to query, find out and make sense of the idea under discussion. They identify the main points and make inferences about the materials. They make personal connections to the lesson or personalize the task or idea. Lastly, at the consolidation stage, students reflect on what they learn, interpret and share experiences, summarize the main idea, and assess their learning. They also think of the solutions or remedies of the problematic parallel problems. I try my best to teach a poem of B. Ed. 1st year following this lesson plan (click here to read) prepared following the strategies and phases of critical thinking. I also list/think up some potential problem that I may have to face in the classroom so that I try earlier to overcome/neutralize such problems whenever they arise.
We can make use of strategies like using analogies and imaginations, promoting interaction among the students, allowing more than sufficient time for reflection in the class to promote critical thinking strategies in ELT classes. We can ask open-ended questions to the students seeking varied subjective answers with considerable amount of time. Students may not answer insistently. Don’t worry. They may have been thinking inside. Wait! The rice inside the pressure cooker may have been getting ready. It whistles to inform being ready when the students speak/write the reply. We must guide the students to apply the knowledge they have learned in different context with considerable modification. Rather than asking the problem just they are there, we can relate them to the real life situation of the students and we need to allow thinking practice and never expect for the fixed answers. We should not interrupt or over correct the students. It may discourage them. We should try our best to be as indirect as possible while correcting them. Fixed answers may be sought in other subjects but not in language teaching because our main goal behind teaching language is teaching the language itself not the subject matter alone.
Our current courses of B. Ed. and M. Ed. have been changed reflecting the newly developed social, political, cultural, and philosophical changes in home and abroad. They seek new student-centered method and nativization of English in different Nepalese culture. They need a lot of reading and thinking from the parts of the teachers and students because the skill alone does not produce object/product without tools and the raw materials. Reading a lot, raising questions, and critical thinking both from the side of the teachers and students are desired.
Bowell, T., & Kemp, G. (2006). Critical thinking: A concise guide. Routledge: London and New York.
Shrestha, P. N. (2008). An overview of ELT, EAP, and ESP in Nepal: Whose interest is served? In Krzanowsky, M. (ed.) EAP and ESP in developing countries: State of play vs actual needs and wants. Canterbury: IATEFL (ESP SIG), pp. 191-210.