Critical Thinking – Making the most of your coursebook

Critical ThinkingI joined in yesterday in the Macmillan Education online conference and Ed Newbon’s webinar in particular on Critical Thinking Skills really got me, well…thinking.
He argued that our role as teachers is changing, that nowadays it is not enough for students to only speak English, they need to have transferable skills for work, studies etc. Critical thinking is one of the skills that we can incorporate into the ELT classroom which can help students perform in the outside world.

So what is critical thinking?

Newbon gave several examples but in a nutshell, it is seen as higher level thinking: problem solving, making judgements, evaluation and reflection. So as teachers it would mean not just focussing on right/wrong answers from a student, not just going through exercises and asking comprehension questions but getting students involved. Get them to problem solve, evaluate and justify their answers.The process of critical thinking is often linked to Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid.

Do you already incorporate critical thinking into your classes?

Is there time in amongst all the learning outcomes, aims and syllabus requirements to even squeeze this into a lesson? Although critical thinking is important, equipping students with life skills is not something that is paramount to me when planning a lesson. Perhaps I should think about planning for it more as I do think it is a valuable tool for getting the most out of an exercise. Through problem solving, evaluating and justifying students will have the opportunity to use and be exposed to a much wider range of vocabulary and grammatical structures than they would by simply doing a traditional lower level thinking activity. Of course many of us already do critical thinking activities instinctively in speaking exercises but using it in reading, listening and writing tasks is a new concept for a lot of us.

Practical Ideas to use in class

  • Whilst doing a reading in class, in addition to the traditional course book T/F factual, comprehension questions (lower level thinking), ask the students to imagine and describe the people talked about in the text, who do they think wrote it, what is the justification for their answers (higher level thinking).
  • When using pictures in class, rather than asking a student to describe the picture. Give some context to the picture. In the webinar Newborn used a similar picture to this and asked people to describe it as someone who hated hot weather. This throws up a lot more vocabulary than the standard exercise.
  • Lindsay Clandfield suggested taking quotes and deleting the last line. Ask students to predict what the final line would be rather than simply doing a matching activity.
  • Another activity would be to give students a list of 4 or 5 words and ask which one does not belong. There is no right or wrong answer, what is important is that they justify their choice.

Do students want this style of teaching in class?

Traditionally students look to the teacher for the ‘correct’ answer. Open ended questions and undefined answers may frustrate some students who want to be tested and given the right answer. Critical thinking skills in class may take time to get used to but I think that taking a moment as teachers to tweak course book activities to involve critical thinking will definitely give more opportunities in class to work with the language. If it helps students to equip themselves with life skills along the way, all the better. As Benjamin Franklin put it ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn

Over to you

If you missed any of the Macmillan Webinars this week, they will be available shortly on the youtube channel. There is also a lot of useful resources and links to life skills here.Check it out!

Think about a few exercises you are going to teach in class this week. How could you incorporate critical thinking into them? Try it out and comment below with your ideas. If you had a great lesson, share it here. If it didn’t work for you, let us know.

4 Responses

  1. Julie Mizrahi

    I saw the webinar too…and then watched an older one from 2011 which was presented by Lindsay Clandfield which I actually preferred.

    ‘Critical thinking is the process of thinking that questions assumptions. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is true, false; sometimes true, or partly true’. …so says Wikipedia.

    I think that through the communicative approach we automatically include a level of critical thinking in our teaching. Particularly, with higher level students when we encourage debate, discussion and asking students, for example, to justify their answer or present an argument if they disagree with something. I remember seeing a very interesting webinar (can’t remember where, sorry) in which Penny Ur focused on activities we can use in class – although she called them ‘Higher Order Thinking Skills’. One example she gave was, instead of using the regular definition match exercise such as the one illustrated below….

    Match the definition:
    1. apathetic a. angry and resentful because someone has something you want
    2. jealous b. nervous and unable to relax
    3. tense c. uncertain about something
    4. doubtful d. lacking interest or energy

    ….an example of higher order thinking skills would be to present the task differently and in contrast apply it to a real life situation or a logical relationship ie:

    Complete any three:

    1. I felt angry because…
    2. I felt sad although…
    3. I felt jealous when …
    4. I felt confident so …
    5. I felt tense although …
    6. I felt doubtful because …
    7. I felt apathetic so …
    8. I felt happy when …

    Also, asking the student to complete at least three (instead of asking them to finish the sentences) accommodates for mixed abilities in the class (weaker students will attempt to complete 3 while stronger students will hopefully complete more). Also, this examples collocations of adjective and preposition and all sorts of other fun stuff!! But…you see my point about the critical thinking element.

    Actually, now I think of it, I put some stuff on my blog about Higher Order Thinking Skills…a few activities on there too. (Nothing original I’m afraid – creative thinking is not one of my own personal skills!)

    Love the post…you give me something to think about every week. Keep up the good work.

  2. I like this idea. I think we probably do it in conversation without realising it a lot – though making it more planned is a great idea. New English File has good questions, but they’re so repetitive, be nice to mix it up with this sort of thing more.

  3. […] you with hundreds of lesson plans all revolving around short film clips. The lessons all promote critical thinking and use films communicatively and creatively in class. You can watch the creater of the website […]

  4. Nadine Early

    I agree with Jo. I think teachers do this anyway. This is particularly true if your students learning outcomes are aligned to the cefr, as blooms taxonomy is included in the descriptors – understanding at the lower levels and analysing at the higher, for example.
    Critical thinking does not have to be something extra to be done on top of everything else, but rather something integral to the learning process itself.

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