Is there enough room for critical thinking in the EFL classroom?
Just like in March, I’ll begin by reproducing a photo that was in newspapers and social media last month and that proved extremely controversial, raising heated discussions on the Internet. Well, I believe you have probably seen it and possibly read lots of arguments, both defending and criticising all sorts of aspects in the photo. Basically, there were two lines: one that saw the babysitter as a victim of social inequality and the other defending their employers who alleged it was her choice to work for them, that the work was legal and that she was being paid all her rights. At this point of my post you might be asking: ok, what’s your point and what does it have to do with ELT?
The day after the photo was published, there was a lot of discussion over it and at the school where I work it was no different. The arguments were very similar to the ones I mentioned above, but then a student raised her hand and said she thought all the discussion was going in the wrong direction. According to her, the question was not about the family being right or wrong in having a babysitter, or the fact that babysitting is legal work. The question, she said, is why are babysitters so common in Brazil and so rare in developed countries? Unfortunately, the other students did not pay much attention to what she said, or maybe did not understand what she meant, and I had actually to follow a syllabus that did not allow for much discussion, so the topic died but her question remained in my mind. And then, as usually happens to me, other questions came up. What I kept thinking is how much and how often do we encourage critical thinking in the EFL classroom?
Even though critical thinking is not new in education, it is not an easy concept to define. In short, we can consider that critical thinking is considering an issue “from various perspectives, to look at and challenge any possible assumptions that may underlie the issue and to explore its possible alternatives.” (HALVORSEN, 2005). Several scholars, in Brazil and abroad, have defended and explained the positive impact of critical thinking in the EFL classroom as, by leading students to critically analyse an issue of their interest, classes tend be more engaging, thus more interesting.
I believe that discussing the picture above would have been fruitless given the turmoil we are currently undergoing in Brazil, but the student pointed out one of the main aspects of critical thinking: it is not a matter of being right or wrong, but of trying to see a matter from various perspectives, even though one might not agree with it. In EFL books, in general, we do not find many controversial topics for a number of reasons, and if you’ve been teaching for some time you might have come by the concept of PARSNIPs (Politics – Alcohol, Religion – Sex – Narcotics – Isms, such as Communism, Anarchism, etc. – Pork), or taboo topics. There are commercial and cultural reasons why these are not often included in EFL material, but this should not be an excuse for not approaching topics that will lead students to think, though I know this has to be done tactfully in many situations.
To sum up, I was pleasantly surprised when the student I mentioned above was able to see the photograph in a different light and go beyond what was actually being discussed by the vast majority. At the same time, it was a little disappointing as, unfortunately, I did not manage to lead the class to discuss the picture further for a number of reasons: time constraints and lack of language ability. And then another question can be raised: why do so few people have the chance to learn a foreign language in Brazil?
HALVORSEN, Andy: Incorporating Critical Thinking Skills Development into ESL/EFL Courses. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 3, March 2005. Available at: https://iteslj.org/Techniques/Halvorsen-CriticalThinking.html. Accessed on April 2nd, 2016.