Critical thinking is the ability to critically analyse information rather than accept information unconditionally. That is, not to accept information we receive as fact but to question what we hear, to evaluate against what we know and then to use that information to draw our own conclusions.
Let’s think about the way we think, look at these true or false questions.
Cows are grass eating animals
Jagodina is the capital of Serbia
Vocabulary is more important than grammar when teaching English
Shows like X-factor are good for society
My grandfather married my mother
The first two sentences we can answer easily and quickly, why? It is because they are universally accepted facts and if we were to question them, then we could find evidence from credible sources that would back up the facts. Those sources might be our own eyes or a biology text book etc.
It is worth remembering that credible sources can sometimes let us down. Anyone who has seen the BBC TV show QI will testify that a whole range of widely held truths have been proved to be untrue or only partially true.
Extreme critical thinkers (often known as conspiracy theorists) will not believe anything until they have seen concrete evidence but most of us accept these universal truths without needing to see proof.
Sentences three and four are beliefs. There is no right or wrong true or false answer for these. Scientists, grammarians, pedagogues or psychologist can put forward arguments and counter-arguments, can produce evidence that ‘proves’ their assertions but others might find evidence to refute their claims.
This for me is where we need to apply critical thought. When we read articles in newspapers, see documentaries on television or read books we often think that what we are reading is fact. After all they appear to be credible sources.(It must be true it was on the BBC.) But we should recognise that the creator has an agenda, and that they are using their facts to create an argument that fits their agenda.
The final sentence shows how sometimes we need to think differently. For all intents and purposes the answer should be false. But it is in fact true. The reason being is that my grandfather married hundreds of women in his role as a vicar and my mother was just one of them. So it also follows that my grandfather married my father too!
Thus sometimes we need to look at things and then look at them differently to find the answer.
Why do we need to encourage Critical Thinking in our lessons?
Students are exposed to so much information these days that they need to be trained to move beyond the first two levels of blooms taxonomy, remembering and understanding, to the other levels like analysing and evaluating. Asking themselves questions and negotiating meaning with the author / speaker. So we want them to form their own opinion and express themselves effectively and also to develop skills that will enable students to evaluate information against what they know and then to use that information to draw their own conclusions.
Two questions that arise from this; why do students need to be trained to think critically and why is it our job to do it?
Educational approaches in many countries require students to memorise and then regurgitate facts, there is very little evaluation or interpretation of what they have learnt. This means that student are ill-prepared for the challenges of further education .
It could be argued that this is not our jobs, we are English teachers and not teaching further education study skills, but I would argue that by encouraging more analysis, more questioning, more evaluation, we are improving their English language skills.
Of course students might have barriers to this approach. The most common barriers are:
• Cultural or personal barriers. – a common example of this is that the student believe something because their teacher told them. In some cultures it may seem rude or impertinent to question a figure of authority.
• Mistaking information for understanding – students might think they understand because they have been taught the facts but might fall down on questions like why or how?
• Lack of methods, strategies, practice or encouragement – students may never have been asked to read between the lines, to look for flaws in an argument etc. so might not know how to do it or might be reluctant to do it.
This means that when you ask students for opinions or to speculate they might say things like:
• My teacher said it, so it must be true.
• I know it is but I don’t know why
• But what’s the right answer?
• What do you think teacher?
• I don’t know! (meaning - I can’t be bothered to think about it so I will say I don’t know, or I am worried my view will be controversial so will not say anything.)
• Is this going to be on the test?