Thursday, 19 January 2012

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Thinking Critically

Critical thinking is a subject that I find particularly interesting. In a recent ELTchat, someone asked if it was our responsibility to encourage this kind of thinking as language teachers. My response was to say that it is our duty as educators to help develop engaged and committed learners. If our students are not able to engage with the materials in our classrooms, then why are those materials even there? I find it impossible to accept that there are students who will not be interested in anything.

But where does this inability to critically interact come from? From what I was told by friends and colleagues when I taught in Korea, it seemed that this was not the focus of their education system, rather they preferred the rote remembering and recalling of facts for tests. This seemed to leave some people unable to analyse and decipher material to the level that I would have expected.

It wasn’t a matter of intelligence, these were well educated, intelligent adults. But often when I asked them what they thought of a film they claimed to enjoy, they were unable to give me a well reasoned and formulated response beyond “It was good”, “I liked it” and so on. I’d never experienced this before and it led me to become more interested in what I learned was called critical thinking.

Of course it is worth pointing out that this problem is not unique to Korea, or just Asia, but is a problem in many parts of the world. In an attempt to understand the roots of this situation, I asked my friend and teacher Shieun Yoon MacDonough to reflect on why she, as someone who has been through the Korean education system, thinks this problem occurs.

First of all, Koreans or people from Asian countries are taught not to argue and feel more comfortable in the environment in which people all agree with each other while they do not like those who do not agree. In Asian culture, harmony is thought of as one of the most important virtues. Thus, most people are reluctant to be different from others or disagree with others to cause any conflicts. Though, people have changed a bit with new education system which encourages students to be more creative and independent, still, people don't change in a short time, I think.

Also, Korean education system asks you to give one good correct answer, instead of various different answers. Many English teachers are frustrated with people saying "I'm fine, thank you, and you?" whenever they ask "How are you?".

It could be from too much drilling or memorization of the same dialogue. Or, it could be from Korean education system. As far as I know, lots of traditional Korean teachers or students are not happy when they hear students being creative  (or being a smart-ass, as they might say). They believe students' showing different thoughts or opinions is equivalent to challenging teachers or being a show-off. I remember some of the smart students not being favored by teachers at school because of this.

Lastly, I believe the lack of knowledge in the second language also contributes to the problem. Not because they do not understand you (or your question) or because they do not really think deeply about your question, but because they fear the teacher’s next question (which might complicate the conversation between them and the student), EFL students may give the simplest answer possible. Well, I did, when I was young. :)

Shieun’s perspective is insightful because she doesn’t just back up some pre-conceived notions I had, but also posits an interesting problem with her last point. Being brought up in an education system like the one she describes does not only diminish the skill of expression, but it also reduces the confidence required to assert your own opinion, even if you have the necessary linguistic and intellectual ability to do so.

And further than that, it is a system that reinforces the status of the teacher as the font of all knowledge, a position that is untenable within a constructive learning environment. So not only does the student have to develop critical skills in a system that doesn’t encourage them, they also have to work on their ability to express them in a foreign language to a figure that they’ve been taught their whole lives to treat as the oracle. No wonder they struggle.

A big thank you to Shieun for her contribution. You can follow her on Twitter here.


  1. Interesting insights. So would you say that students' inability to fluently express themselves is exacerbated by their lack of thinking skills or this inability actually stems from the lack of thinking skills?

    On the brighter side, students coming from cultures where undue emphasis is placed on drilling and rote learning should be at an advantage when it comes to, say, learning lexical chunks by heart. Imagine how easy it should be for them to memorize whole dialogues from a film or passages of a book. I know it might seem outdated but this technique is advocated by such vocabulary research gurus as Paul Meara.
    So certainly teachers have to help students develop critical thinking skills but they can also capitalise on their existing strengths.

  2. Yes, the commentary about Korean (same when I taught there) and other Asian (I now teach predominantly Chinese students) education systems is very true. Challenging what others believe is often frowned upon.

    This leads to critical thinking issues, especially when students travel to English-speaking universities for their education. Critical thinking and evaluation of texts in terms of bias, reliability and even just discussing opinions is a major area to tackle early on and often leaves students uncomfortable realising that what they've been taught is not necessarily the only right answer. But it is possible to awaken them and in the end, this enables them a better chance to succeed, especially in upper year academic study.

  3. I certainly agree that as educators we cannot ignore the issue of critical thinking.
    On the other hand, here in Israel we're facing an innovative program to teach critical thinking while teaching literature IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. English teachers are quite upset that such programs werent' introduced in L1 before having us teach these thinking skills while grappling with the vocabulary and concepts of authentic literature.

    Very interesting post!

  4. Naomi - maybe it's not a concept that meshes well in L1 with L1 teachers of that culture. Maybe L2 is more conducive to different approaches to texts. I know this is true for many Asians.

  5. Thanks for sharing. I really appreciate you outlining critical thinking in the South Korean context. I especially thank your teacher, Ms Yoon, for her honesty and clarity.

  6. Cool post -

    I agree with the initial assertion of educators being duty bound when it comes to encouraging learners along a path that includes critical thinking; I also like to see day to day life as inclusive to this: anybody facing a decision is probably open to using critical thinking skills.

    As a teacher, I respond by releasing learners into being effective questioners of each other, something which can be adapted to whatever situations they find themselves in, whether academic, business or the supermarket.

    Note to self:
    Questions are perhaps modelled by the teacher, but only ever delivered by learners;
    Use non-threatening, familiar context/scenarios, plenty of pairwork, and imaginative props;
    Praise; Listen; Wait patiently for change;
    Repeat as necessary.

    In other words, weed out the teacher, sow into fertile soil, water gently, and reap a crop of critical thinkers ;)

  7. Leo, thanks for your comment and apologies for the delay in replying.

    To answer your question, I think it's the former. In most cases they have the linguistic competence, just as they do in their own language, but culturally it is not the natural mode of expression.

    And while I'm very sympathetic to the idea of using the existing strengths of the students, I would be very wary of them learning lexical chunks in this way. Repetition, drills, revision, recycling are all fine, but learning whole texts seems to go too far to me and doesn't encourage flexible use of the language learned.

  8. Thanks Tyson, and apologies for the slowness of my reply.

    Great comment Tyson and it really backs up my observation that a teaching style that does not promote critical thinking does not eradicate it from the person at the same time. As ELT teachers we are in a great position to enable our students to add this skill to the numerous ones they have already acquired.

  9. Hi Naomi, thanks for stopping by.

    That's certainly a big ask, isn't it? Governments, normally run by bureaucrats and lawyers, have a habit of dropping these things on teachers and expecting them to just get on with it. Coincidentally, my students in Korea were all English teachers who had to retrain because now they were required to teach in English and they too were upset and intimidated by this change.

    However, I think the big ask is teaching in English rather than teaching literature with critical thinking. I'm really not sure how you can teach literature without critical thinking, to be honest. Engagement with the text via the characters, the plot, the meaning etc is what literature is all about, without it it is pointless.

    But it also shouldn't be simple, and asking teachers to start to express these concepts in a foreign language without adequate support and training does seem unfair to me.

  10. Thanks Koreamaria, on behalf of Shieun too!

  11. Thanks ChristoJ. As a bit of a gardener myself, I approve of your plan!

    You are right that the teacher needs to step out of the process, but I don't think this should be applied too early as the teacher's role in encouraging and training this mode of thinking is crucial to it's success. I'm all in favour of passing over the autonomy, but done too early, it could be a disaster.

  12. It might help students memorizing many vocabulary words but there certainly is a limit to the number of vocabularies that you can remember, and at certain point, you are required to have an ability to 'guess the meaning of the word from the context.' That's where it gets difficult. Many Asian students find it difficult because they are so used to reading and translating the text. For instance, when I was a student, my teacher told students to read one English sentence, and he translated into Korean, telling us to underline difficult vocabularies. He didn't challenge us to find the meaning of the words from the dictionary. He just told us the meaning that he'd found before the class, and told us to write it. After the class, the teacher gaves us the list of the underlined words and their meanings, and the next day we took a test. As he called out the words, we wrote the words and their meanings on the empty paper. No wonder why Koreans can't read a book without English-Korean dictionary.

  13. speaking as a teacher of very young children, in the British education system, who often don't have the vocabulary or linguistic ability to express themselves to any great depth, I found these posts fascinating - thank you.



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