Developing critical thinking skills with Dr Sara Hannam
At the centre of the learning philosophy in many English speaking universities is the idea that academic thinking requires balanced judgement reached through exploring multiple points of view. It is believed that a simplistic right/wrong approach is limiting and listening to alternatives is likely to lead to a better outcome. This more complex way of considering issues is often referred to as critical thinking, a term that is used widely in further and higher education. There are many different interpretations of what this may mean but a useful definition is the idea of looking at issues from a number of perspectives.
Using our critical mind is an ongoing process which continues throughout our lives. We all have biases (areas of thinking where we have a ‘blind spot’). Therefore, critical thinking is about becoming aware of our biases and challenging our own thinking. Another widely held misconception is the fact that the term ‘critical’ is often seen in its negative sense rather than as an opportunity to explore issues more thoroughly, thereby bringing about more informed viewpoints.
At a very basic level, critical thinking is the act of questioning information by asking where it comes from, who has said/written it, what their motivation was for doing so and what world view it represents. World view means the ideas that underpin each person’s understanding of how people and relationships interconnect. A simple example of this would be when a person says ‘I think everyone benefits from some competition in their workplace’, expressing a view that demonstrates that they believe competition to be positive for everyone. Although this might be seen as common sense by many people there is another view which is that in fact some people work more effectively when they are part of a collaborative team which works together to achieve a shared goal.
At university level, it is hoped that students are able to notice these biases in the writing and speaking of others, as well as consulting expert opinion and research in the formation of their own ideas. It is also hoped they will learn to spot inferred as well as literal meaning. This demonstrates they are able to exercise critical judgment. Whenever you are working with a spoken or written text, try to help your students notice biases and read between the lines. When they are in discussion with each other, try to help them become more self-aware about their own viewpoints in relation to those around them.
At a deeper level, there is another stage of critical thinking which relates to how students process the information they have unpacked. If students are looking at a text about global warming, they may have discussed it and agreed there is a need for action in the interests of protecting future generations. The lesson might end at that point…
Alternatively, opportunities could be provided to consider what can actually be done to remedy the situation. Much critical thinking focuses on revealing other perspectives and ways of viewing issues that lie behind a common sense view of the world. As a teacher, it is important to allow students to explore the area of responsibility (i.e. in the case of global warming, who is to blame? Is it larger organisations that generate pollution on a mass scale or the individual in their home? Are they equally responsible?).
It is also important to consider agency (i.e. what is the solution to this problem and what can people do?). The second area may bring up discussions about who has control and power in our world. Bearing in mind your specific teaching context, the development of critical thinking skills needs to tackle issues relating to who has access to decision making and the way resources are distributed.
Put your students in the position of decision makers (through role play or discussion) to help them really grasp the different perspectives embedded in the complexity around them. For example, in the case of the global warming situation, a big business may be prepared to sacrifice environmental protection in the pursuit of profitable production. At the same time, they may be under increasing pressure to meet internationally-agreed environmental directives to slow down production and make it more environmentally friendly. An environmental analyst may see this sacrifice as a negation of responsibility, whereas the big business will see this as survival. Politicians may feel that they are powerless to demand change from big business as they require their support in other areas of policy. The individual may wish to seek to change this situation to protect our future, but may wonder where to begin, so may form a campaign which then puts pressure on big business. And so the cycle continues...
Role playing the various positions in class can help to tease out these differences but some teachers may be fearful of asking students to take this step. However, a critical classroom should not be teacher led but student centred. The teacher should facilitate student thinking by asking the right questions rather than taking a strong position that may make some students feel uncomfortable. It may be the first time some of your students have been in a classroom discussion like this. Encouraging disagreement in a supportive and cooperative atmosphere is at the heart of what a university setting will eventually offer them. As teachers, we can always find a way to introduce critical thinking moments into our classroom by using the resources around us, such as reading and listening texts, and connecting them with outside events. University requires students to make those connections and to read widely to explore important issues further.
Dr Sara Hannam
Dr Sara Hannam is the Deputy Academic Director of Pathways English at Oxford Brookes University. Sara has extensive experience of teaching and designing materials at all level of EAP provision, and is particularly interested in bringing critical pedagogy and practice into university EAP teaching in concrete and accessible ways.
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