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?

 

References:

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.

elainehodgson

Elaine Hodgson is a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer, as well as a supervisor on the Distance MA in TEFL at Birmingham University (UK). She holds an MA from UECE and a PhD from UFC in Applied Linguistics. You can read more about her work at https://www.elainehodgsonelt.com. Email: elainechaveshodgson@hotmail.com

2 Comments
  • SIMONE SARMENTO
    Posted at 14:38h, 03 abril Responder

    Very nice Elaine Elaine Carvalho Chaves Hodgson! I think this is particularly where the teaching of English should differ in regular schools as compared to language centers. In schools perhaps teachers should find the time to discuss this type of things always allowing for a multitude of points of view. Schools are nowadays one of the only places in Brazil where children still get in touch with (unfortunately only few) differences and this should not be stopped, but stimulated. Living and respecting different opinions is what we need right now!

  • Elaine Hodgson
    Elaine Hodgson
    Posted at 19:47h, 03 abril Responder

    Hi, Simone!
    Thank you for your kind words. I totally agree with you, we do have to find the time for critical thinking, and also to know how to approach more sensitive matters. This, I believe, is an essential part of education, education that, hopefully, will help make the world more tolerant and fair. I’m not sure how often it happens at school, or at English lessons more specifically, but I’d love to see more thought-provoking topics in ELT materials in general.

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