10 Ways to promote critical thinking in the English classroom

English teachers have many opportunities to promote critical thinking because they are not restricted by content.  What literature you teach is unimportant; how it is taught is. The Critical Thinking Consortium is a good place to start when you are examining your own practices.  Teachers often ask questions that address higher thinking skills, whether it is in a whole class format, group work or homework.  A question like:  How can you apply the situation or ideas in Lord of the Flies to today’s world? does ask for critical thinking.  The problem is how many students actually answer it well.  Some will do a great job, some will try and say obvious things and some will not even attempt it unless they can consult the internet.  What usually happens is that this will often be discussed in the whole class situation, students will take note of the best answers and the teacher will be happy because she\he has made the connections for the students.  But how many people have used critical thinking?

1. Don’t spend your time examining literature through literary terms such as setting, theme, metaphor etc.  This is both a crutch for teachers and students; it puts everything into comfortable categories and distills ideas and writing down to pieces of information.

2.  Do decide what it is you want students to take away from the piece of literature.  This is popularly referred to as “the big idea”.  I want my students to think, to enjoy, to maybe have an”aha” moment.  I don’t think that asking for “foreshadowing” always does this although it may appeal to individuals who like neat packages that they can handle and identify.

3.  Just because only a few students in the class can answer the more challenging questions, doesn’t mean that the others are incapable or lazy.  There is too big a gap in the process for many students. Before you ask the big questions, you have to lay considerable groundwork for students so that they can arrive at the deeper ideas.  They often haven’t had enough experience working through a difficult question or they are missing something that will allow them to do so.  When people work at exposing their thinking, they get to understand the process more and learn to make connections which are so important. The teacher must frequently show his thinking process to the students.  As well, students should be asked to work backwards and explain how they arrived at a conclusion.

4.  Have your students become comfortable with using Question Stems as a means of conveying their understanding of a text.  A question stem is open-ended and forces the student to automatically think deeper about the text.  Students should use ones that ask how and why rather than who or what.  Many stems require comparisons or connections.  For example,  I will ask my students to hand in 3 such questions with answers after we have read a short story.  I can assess the students’ comprehension and thinking and I will use the questions as a springboard for discussion.  The best part is that I have not told them how or what to think.  You can find an example of Questions Stems here.

5.  Allow more opportunity for ambiguity and controversy.  As a rule, students don’t like this because they want things to wrap up neatly.  However, it does provide many opportunities for deeper thinking and forces an individual to think outside of his/her traditional patterns.  For example, after I have finished teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I have given my students some of the criticism that has been written about teaching the book.  I asked them to create criteria for judging whether or not a text should be taught in school.  They then looked at the pro’s and con’s  and decided whether the novel was worth studying.  Not only does this exercise ask them to form judgements but it also introduces different viewpoints and controversy.

6.  Use different forms of evaluation.  Tests and exams should have far less importance than they do right now in the English curriculum.  An exam should not be testing content; therefore, its main purpose is to demonstrate how an individual thinks under a time constraint.  I suppose this has some merit but everything else a test or exam does can be done in different, more thought-provoking forms.  I love mind-maps and have used  them extensively.  A mind-map that is used as a summative evaluation on a particular text or topic is very challenging for the students.  It requires knowledge, synthesis and the ability to organize material in a spatial way.  The students may not like doing them because they are hard work but the results are very informative and often amazing. There are many examples of mind-maps on the internet; this video with Tony Buzan explains the theory.

I will include my mind map activities in a later blog.

7.  Do activities that ask the students to create criteria for evaluation.  We often ask students’ opinions; for example, reader’s response asks students to make connections and discuss reactions to a text.  Creating criteria takes this one step further.  The student has to think about how to judge or evaluate something.  This process not only involves deeper thinking but it can also help the student to learn more about a process.  I’ll give you an example of this:  I had my students make group mind maps in class about a topic relating to Hamlet.  The purpose was to practise making mind maps and to show what they had learned so far about the play.  We placed the mind maps around the room and they had to choose the top 3.  Before they could do this, they had to create criteria for judging the maps.  Not only did the students learn more about the mind mapping process but they also learned more about the play.  It was a highly successful activity.  I also recommend Popplet as a type of mind map software that the students can use to incorporate video and images.  Technically, a popplet is not a mind map but it does have some interesting uses.

8.  Spend more time examining media in the classroom.  First, student engagement will be very high.  Secondly, all media is a text that can be examined like a novel or short story.  Thirdly, it provides innumerable opportunities to make connections, analyze, synthesize and evaluate.  And finally, besides discussion, it provides topics for writing and reasons to create media. We are all huge consumers of media but our students have made it integral parts of their lives through social media etc.  Media does not mean watching a filmed version of a novel, as some teachers believe.  There is no need to show feature films in a classroom except for Shakespeare and a few other cases.  I love short films and the following web site is a good one: http://www.shortoftheweek.com/

I plan to write future blogs about my media lessons.

9.  Critical literacy is embedded in the Ontario curriculum.  It stresses asking questions about how, why and why not.  Rarely, do teachers put much emphasis on these questions and so our students are content to settle for one viewpoint or “the right answer”.  Media is a powerful way to illustrate to the students that many viewpoints, voices and groups are completely ignored.  Analyze any TV show and it is not hard for the students to see the dominant viewpoint.  A simple question like: what do the people in the show value? is a great way to springboard such discussion.

10.  Finally, challenge how you are approaching a text or a lesson.  Is your reason for doing it this way because it is the best way for the students to think, to engage and to learn ? Or is it because you are comfortable, you enjoy talking about it, you believe you are covering all the necessary points. When I started teaching 36 years ago, I was teaching texts and ideas.  I’m still doing that but I see the task of teaching thinking as far more important.

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4 Responses to 10 Ways to promote critical thinking in the English classroom

  1. dana Wardrop says:

    Hi Cathy, this is just an amazing creation you are offering to your friends. A real legacy from a great teacher. Dana

  2. Tracey says:

    Beautifully done Cathy and great interactive examples. I am going to share your blog spot with colleagues and friends. I hope that you share this with your staff too!
    cheers, Tracey

  3. AlishaSmith says:

    Since you presented your mind mapping activity at the Heads Day, I’ve been using a modified version of it in my Hamlet units. I find it a great tool for helping students students study the big ideas and how the author develops these in the play. I also use them quite often at the end of term 1 or 3, as a midterm, to see what the students have taken away from the course.
    I think you are a little hard on feature films. They are often as rich as a novel, and more engaging for many of the students. I often use them as many others would short stories: thematic links to content for greater breadth of knowledge. That said, I do like using other forms of media in the class.
    You raised a good point about needing to teach more about the conventions and codes. I could use a few good tutorials on that myself. But I started using a modified version of the music video project in my grade 9 classes. The kids love it. I love it.

  4. I’m glad you are enjoying the music video unit. Of course, feature films are wonderful and we all enjoy them. I was trying to say that with our access to the internet, we can now see many short films that do everything a longer one does. Good on you for using film like a text. As for media study, I plan on leaving my department a 4 year plan that addresses the media strand of the curriculum. No doubt, I will blog about it as well.

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