May 10, 2012 by Willy Cardoso
Some teachers of geography, English, history, religious education, social studies and even science have made it their business to deal overtly with moral and social issues. However carefully teachers avoid overt indoctrination, it is impossible to teach any of these subjects without implying some perspective and making some choices which will be implicitly value-laden.
Barnes, 1988: 18-19
I’m slightly concerned about some demands to include, and teach, critical thinking skills in curricula in general.
What is very easy to happen is that teachers will talk about critical thinking to students and then offer some kind of practice, for example, by showing them an advert and asking tricky questions which more often than not
a) students won’t be able to articulate their ideas to the teacher’s satisfaction (here I’m talking more specifically about Teaching English as a Foreign Language) because of linguistic and even cultural gaps, and;
b) they will give an answers whose intention was more to produce ‘correct’ language than to engage in a critical discussion and/or say whatever they think the teacher and peers will accept as ‘correct’ thought (if you’ve taught multicultural groups you’ll have hopefully had plenty of opportunities to see this happen, I suppose).
There are of course those who will respond ‘as expected’, i.e. with some critical awareness and engagement, but in my experience they’re a minority; not because they cannot think like this, but because the circumstances in which they’re asked to think critically are rather foreign to them; i.e. a classroom is not a place for such thought experiments. And also because in the end the teacher might paradoxically focus on language accuracy rather than critical thinking itself.
This is just so hard! I have the impression that when I give less importance to the linguistic aspects of my students language, they think that I’m not actually teaching them language, which is what in theory they’re paying for. On the other hand, if the focus is primarily on linguistic accuracy, context and motive for speaking becomes just a background, hence the experience becomes more of an evaluative and corrective one, rather than a communicative one. The truth is, there is (apparently) not enough time to take care of both things as much as they deserve. Plus, some students sort of get annoyed when there’s too much talk about their talking; and rather have a succinct feedback and move on with the course.
Back to my concern about teaching critical thinking, I think there are some fundamentals to be considered when interested in such an endeavor.
An important one, as hinted via the quote above, is – we should pay attention to whose values this critical-thinking approach is representing. As far as I can see, it’s often the teacher’s. So, the teacher believes it is good for students to learn how to think the way s/he considers to be the highest form of thinking; and that of course is deeply rooted in the teacher’s values, culture, and everything else. Needless to say it might not be the case for students, at least not in the classroom setting. This was clearly shown to me when teaching for the first time a group of Japanese students, and ‘testing’ their critical thinking abilities by asking open-ended questions on moral dilemmas in whole-group conferencing; and all that in the first couple of lessons with the group. Yes, I know; what the heck was I thinking? But at least I now know better how to approach a similar situation. Anyway, what I want to say is that my choices were value-laden, and so are most of your choices when making pedagogical decisions.
Therefore, I have realized some things that for some are common sense, but for me are rather liberating and consequently challenging:
- any kind of teaching is teacher-centred in some ways, for it is impossible to completely get out of one’s consciousness when teaching someone something. Teaching is intrinsically value-laden; hence a genuine learner-centered education may only happen without the hierarchical conception of teaching and teachers.
- learner-centeredness is rooted in Western projects of enlightenment, modernism, capitalism, autonomy, etc; and is ultimately of an understanding that the individual can be self-governing through high doses of education. All this is so value-laden that, oh boy… I don’t even need to say anything.
Coming down to a practical level, I could only say that:
- critical thinking, if desired, should start from allowing (and why not, teaching) students to challenge their primary source of information, namely the teacher, and his/her teaching apparatus: syllabus, textbook, etc.
In essence, critical thinking starts with being critical about critical thinking itself; whose intention it serves, what for, what values are brought along, etc. It starts from examining the source of knowledge one encounters, with the teacher being the main hub of this knowledge when engaged in formal education.
The questions is: are teachers ready to be taken critically by their students?
Barner, D. (1988) Knowledge as Action, In: Lightfoot and Martin (eds.) The word for teaching is learning: essays for James Briton. Oxford: Heinemann.