In this blog post, I discuss how the core principles of critical thinking such as open-mindedness, ability to see any phenomenon through multiple perspectives, etc. can be exploited in EFL classes with a view to increasing learner-centeredness in our EFL classes and enhance learners’ critico-creative thinking.
Context for teaching and learning English
Despite the strong desire of getting mastery over English, many Nepali learners of English do not have sufficient level of English mainly because of the amount of exposure. Let me give an example of the time teacher and students spend using English throughout a year. Most of the government-aided schools in Nepal have the classes of forty minutes and six classes a week. Thus, there are spending (40 x 6) = 240 minutes in a week (240 x 4) = 960 minutes a month and (960 x 10) = 9600 minutes a year. If we change this amount of time into hours, they study 160 hours. To count in days, they study just 6.67 days a year. Hardly a week! If we deduct the time such as the use of the Nepali language, the time spent on coming and going to class, bandh days, etc. I am afraid, students might be studying in some minus days.
Although the simple calculation I have done in the previous paragraph seems to be unrealistic, it is the reality of many students who are learning English in public schools of Nepal. The big picture of public schools appears to be much gloomier if we see how teachers tend to teach reading. While a teacher is teaching reading, he or she reads out certain lines or a paragraph and then explains the text in the Nepali language. The same procedure is applied for all lines or paragraphs, and finally a very vague question is often asked: Did you understand? In response to such a question, the students say in chorus, yes sir/miss/ma’am. Then reading is over. This was the tradition when I was in high schools and the same trendy tradition is reigning our public schools. I do not think this way of teaching is non-existent in private schools as well.
Teaching following critical thinking approach
Promotion of critical thinking in a classroom requires a teacher to follow principles of cooperative learning, learner autonomy, many techniques of teaching such as individual work, pair work, group work, project work, jigsaw, etc. The point to be noted while carrying out these activities is that we need to ask thought- provoking questions, allow learners think independently, encourage them to raise vital questions, etc. Most of the procedure while following this approach is that we should start the lesson digging up the students’ knowledge on the topic in question, give input, which Krashen says, should be slightly higher than the learners’ existing level and let the learners take the new experience obtained form the text and explore around them. Let me take the lesson Prodip Pal and the Young Zamindar from grade ten textbook and describe the procedure that I followed while teaching that particular lesson.
First, I wrote five words such as Prodip, Zamindar, money lender, Judge and cow inside a balloon on the board and asked all the students to write a paragraph or a poem or a dialog individually within three minutes. Once they have finished, they were asked to share their texts with their right elbow partners and decide whose texts were better. When all of them have done the task, they were allowed to share their better stories to the whole class.
Second, the students were divided into groups and then they were asked to write what they already know about Zamindar, tenants and judges. They might have known about them through their own observation or through different media or films. They listed their characters, problems, qualities, get up, etc.
Third, they were asked to read the text in the same groups formed earlier. However, they were asked to read differently. One of the persons in the group would read certain lines and paraphrase for other students. If other students have some queries, they could ask the person who was reading. If the reader had some problems, other colleagues of the group or the teacher helped him or her. Then, the turn would go to the next student. In this way, all the students would read the text and get the information found in the text. Having the text read, the teacher can ask a lot of thought- provoking questions such as What do you think would have happened if the young Zamindar had not bought the judge? Whom will you support? To the Pals or Zamindar? Do you think you would have sold Rani, the cow, if you were Prodip Pal? ,etc.
Fourth, the students were individually asked to extend the story the way they like at least in about 200 words as homework. Finally, students in a group were asked to play the role of Prodip Pal, Zamindar, Money lender, Judge and other member of the Pal family. This is how it took three days to teach a text about 500 words.
My reflection on using critical thinking for teaching secondary level students
I applied this procedure for all the reading texts found in the prescribed textbooks of the secondary level .I asked all the students to read the texts using different techniques of teaching. The task of reading text was shifted from me to my students. Consequently, students talking time (STT) was much more than the teacher talking time (TTT) in the classroom. Although in the beginning they showed their reluctances as they were habituated to listen to their teachers read the texts, gradually they became independent readers. In course of time, I did not have to give the meaning of the difficult words they found in the text; rather they would check whether not I had known the meaning of certain words, for example, once a student asked me the meaning the word pulsar, which was from astronomy. Immediately, I said¸”Don’t you know it’s a Bajaj bike? In response, the students laughed. Actually, until that day, I had not known the next meaning of the word. I asked them to say what the meaning was. Then they replied that it refers to an invisible star that sends radiation. This is how the traditional concept that teacher is the authority in the classroom was overthrown and the amount of exposure to the students was remarkably increased.
In additional to the pros mentioned previous passage, there occurred some challenges as well, for example, in the beginning the students would say that the teacher did not teach, but asked them to read and do all the things in the classroom sitting on a chair or on a bench. This is the comment that I came to know from another teacher teaching in the school. Had I not become the head teacher, I would have been interrogated. Perhaps, my job would be at risk. Then I realized that I should have shared this way of teaching to other teaches too. Then, I organized workshops on every Friday after one p.m. for one and half a month. The greatest problem was found among those who were shy and slow in learning. Another challenge was that comparatively it took more time. Therefore, it was very difficult to finish the textbook on time. Also, since higher order thinking questions are not asked in the examination, students do not get direct benefits.
Teaching reading and writing following the steps and strategies of critical thinking can be highly instrumental for increasing learner-centeredness in EFL classes and the amount of exposure to the students. The basic principles of critical thinking can be implemented in any kind of texts or contexts. However, if we have bi-pronged objectives: helping learners develop language proficiency and critical thinking skills, we need to change the way we have been asking questions in the examinations. It is because our questions are limited to recall and understanding levels only. Apart from this, test items in the examination are very predictable which is why students are not required to think and solve the questions; but recall what they have already studied and reproduce the same.