Thinking critically about critical thinking

"The Thinker" by Auguste Rodin_Image from

“The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin_Image from














I recently attended an excellent workshop about critical thinking in the ELT classroom. The presenters discussed what it is and isn’t, provided references to Bloom’s taxonomy and relevant literature, and concluded that we really need to teach it. Everyone nodded in agreement. No one questioned this statement. No one raised a hand to ask why. In other words, no one got critical about critical thinking. Including me. (I had my reasons: I’d just delivered the plenary presentation at the conference, and I was afraid of undermining the presenters.)

Education is abuzz with critical thinking. It’s frequently cited as one of the three Cs of the so-called 21st century skills, the others being creativity and collaboration, and it has begun to appear in mainstream coursebooks. But it’s problematic, for several reasons.

Problem 1: Who can teach it?

Which of us is qualified to teach critical thinking? In the CELTA and DELTA courses that I took to become a language teacher, there was no mention of critical thinking, or indeed critical anything (pedagogy, literacy, theory …).

Critical thinking is more than just getting students to question things. It relates to epistemology: the study of knowledge – its sources, structures and limitations. It requires a mindset of openness and an understanding of alternative possibilities. Are language teachers, generally, equipped with these tools? Some are, some aren’t. Some may think they are, but aren’t. Already we’re on shaky ground.

Problem 2: Which students need to be taught critical thinking?

What if our students are already critical thinkers? Over the last two decades, countless students have taught me enormous amounts about the world. I’ve been the recipient of impromptu lectures on American foreign policy, the media, the Swiss banking system, the work of writers I’d never heard of, etc., etc., all from students speaking English as a Foreign Language. No one can tell me these students didn’t think critically. They were teaching me how to think critically.

Perhaps the idea is that we teach critical thinking only to children or teenagers who are still learning how to read the world. But that leads us to another problem …

Problem 3: Whose belief systems do we espouse?

I lived and taught in Egypt in the 90s. Every day I witnessed things that were culturally alien to me: the place of religion in society, the treatment of women, the political environment. I thought about these critically, but realized that my views were a result of my biases and background – the western liberal tradition that, in theory, values democracy, openness, and equality.

Who was I to impose my critical views on traditions that stretch back thousands of years? Was it my vocation to be a savior of the souls of these poor little rich Egyptian kids I was teaching? And did I really want to be a disruptive influence in the school where I was paid to teach English?

Educational traditions vary enormously in different nations. It’s often noted that in China, rote memorization is a much-lauded practice. It represents respect for wise souls who came before us and ordered the world. Plagiarism, too, is more acceptable in China as it is seen as a rightful acknowledgement of authority. In the West, memorization is regarded as trivial and plagiarism criminal. To call for critical thinking in many cultures is seen as a disrespectful challenge to established knowledge.

Confucius, Chinese teacher, philosopher, politician. Should we question his teachings?

Confucius, Chinese teacher, philosopher, politician. Should we question his teachings?









Problem 4: What’s the purpose of our profession?

Michael Swan once gave a presentation called “Language Teaching is Teaching Language.” His point was that our profession isn’t about teaching pragmatics or culture. It’s about teaching language. This means grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and the four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Language teachers reside in a strange place in education. We simply have no content to teach. The syllabus is the components of language: words. The medium is the message.

And finally … does critical thinking have a place in ELT?

My answer is that it depends on the students. Learning is about two things: opportunity and motivation. Will it motivate the students to delve more deeply into a text? Will questioning the material enhance their engagement with it? Will problematizing a statement in a coursebook lead to extended speaking opportunities?

If critical thinking will motivate the class, then, for me, it’s a good thing. But I don’t believe language teachers should be on a mission to develop critical thinking. We aren’t paid for it, we aren’t qualified for it, and judging by the workshop I attended last week, most of us can barely define it, let alone teach it.

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