Time to think… Building critical/analytical thinking into the language classroom
While teaching a group of students in China, I once used the philosophical ‘trolley problem’ as a stimulus for discussion. The students had to consider the philosophical implications of pulling a lever to divert a tram away from 5 people on one track, when it was known that it would hit a single person on another track.
We discussed the notion of responsibility and the ethical implications of the decision for a full hour, going deeper and deeper into the dilemma. Everyone got a lot of thought out of the exercise, and discussed the issue freely. At the end of the class, a student who hd been openly considering both sides of the story came to me and asked ‘so teacher, thank you for the interesting discussion, but can you tell me: what is the right answer? Should we pull the lever or not?’
Is there ever a correct answer?
The idea of ‘correct answers’ is (rightly or wrongly) reinforced in teaching and testing from a young age. Exam scores, metrics and quantifiable performance are necessary to track student progress, and this is fair in most academic subjects. However, in language education, the idea of a single ‘correct’ response to most questions is difficult to define.
In communication, there are many ways of saying the same thing, and flexibility with language should be rewarded. Yes, we might expect a specific, accurate response to a restricted grammar question, but is the answer we expect the only correct way of answering? Usually not, which is the reason that computer-based assessments of language production (speaking and writing) are still not as accurate as human markers, and produce flawed data.
In the task-based classroom, a lot of the work that goes on is linked to questions and answers. Worksheets and activities use questions to encourage language practice, and communicative approaches to language learning often rely on questions to elicit responses from students.
There is a risk that questions from teachers and tasks can imply that there is a single ‘right answer’ that students should aim for in their response. If you are aiming to build students’ language skills beyond pure accuracy of grammar and vocabulary, encouraging them to apply different patterns of language and explore content more deeply, you may want to consider some ways of building a more critical/analytical environment in the classroom.
Focus on whys and hows, not just whats
One way of doing this is to encourage students to think not just about the ‘whats’ of language and content, but to focus on the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ that go along with what you are teaching. Effective language learning is not just about knowing facts, or learning about language, but is about applying thinking and interactive processes to discover why certain language works in certain ways, and how it can be used. Follow up content questions with why’s and how’s, and push students to reason with what they are learning, using questions such as:
Why do you think that?
Why did you use that word?
Why did the text begin / end / develop in that way?
How did you get that answer?
How could you say that differently?
How did the speaker say that he was unhappy / unsure / scared…
Whys and hows are a simple technique to encourage a different level of thinking about language and content, and stretch students’ brains beyond simply looking for a correct content-based response and moving on.
If students set questions, they control the answers
Another way of encouraging deeper analytical thinking about the language your students are learning is to get them forming questions about the text they are studying, or the video from the class. If the teacher sets all the questions, the students are just responding to your process rather than taking control of their own.
To get a deeper understanding of a reading exam section, for example, take a text and remove the questions. Ask students to write their own set of questions in the format that you have introduced them to. Have them set each other the exam section to complete and discuss how much it reflects the structure of the exam they are studying for.
Another way of encouraging more critical thinking with a text, audio or video resource is to instruct students to ask three genuine questions that they need the answers to, in order to understand the text better. Student questions could be about specific vocabulary items, concepts or events they watch, listen or read about. Give the text or play the audio/video without any questions to answer, and students will be much more proactive in finding out what they need to know, using their critical brains and engaging with the material more deeply and more interactively together. This can prompt more student-student discussion as they share their ideas authentically in answer to each others’ questions.
Time to think
Perhaps the simplest way to encourage criticality with questions is to control your own teacher talk by slowing down and giving more time and interactive space to students, allowing them the chance to think and rethink, producing more ideas for discussion. Try leaving a two or three-second pause after a student responds to a question, and see if anyone else fills the silence with a different idea. Time and space is important for thinking and formulating responses, and too many teachers jump on student responses with their own validation (positive or negative) too quickly, killing any chance of discussion or peer comment on ideas that are given in response. Be careful not to shut down student ideas by talking over them or ‘rubber stamping’ their ideas as correct or incorrect before the class has had a chance to think about it.
Overall, building a more critical/analytical classroom depends on how you build the study environment. A class full of rigorous tasks with right and wrong answers, little chance for students to respond to each other, and no focus on the processes of learning (the hows and whys) will never encourage students to think more deeply about their work, and is likely to become a teacher-driven, teacher-validated setting where ideas are not explored to their fullest.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.