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Taking Critical Thinking out of English Teaching Classrooms

 

I was as guilty as anyone, I must admit. There was a time that I thought critical thinking was an essential tool in the English teacher’s arsenal and I indulged. It was arrogant, wrong-headed, and I’m damn sorry. I’ve reformed.

 

Here’s why.

A critical thinker should sense the rich irony, the obvious paradox, inherent in the notion that critical thinking can, or should, be conveyed from an authority figure to students. Equally dubious is the notion that if teachers don’t teach students how to think, somehow learners will never develop the capacity. BS.

 

“How can the average English teacher be so sure that (s)he is a sound critical thinker and that the learners are not?”

 

Worse than that, teaching critical thinking in EFL is self-righteous and, as I stated earlier, arrogant. After all, how can the average English teacher be so sure that (s)he is a sound critical thinker and that his/her charges are not? I mean, we’re ENGLISH teachers for goodness sake, not qualified logicians. Go ahead, answer me — is it just because the learners’ English is imperfect?

 

Sorry, but this smacks of colonialism (as so much ‘progressive’ ideology tends to) – the notion that non-English speakers must somehow be cognitively impaired. Critical thinking can be carried out, and is indeed carried out, in every language – it is not a by-product of internalizing English. There is nothing inherently more critical or logical in English than exists in any other language, and the belief that English proficiency magically bestows critical thought as a virtue upon its speakers is odious in the extreme.

 

‘They haven’t been taught critical thinking yet!’ — Self-important, self-gratifying nonsense

 

Some EFL teachers justify their CT-infused approaches by pointing to the ‘fact’ that their students ‘haven’t been taught critical thinking yet’ – as if it is their bounden duty to somehow fill this alleged gap in the local educational curricula. Except that this trope, too, is self-gratifying, self-important nonsense. Let’s use Japan as an example.

 

(Trigger warning – harsh, subjective evaluations follow)

The average Japanese student actually excels at critical thinking. Problem solving — often creative, thoughtful, problem solving — dominates the curriculum, which is why the Japanese inevitably rank at or near the top in international problem solving rankings. The average post-pubescent Japanese is reason-disciplined enough to think the average Westerner (ahem — present company excepted) under the table, out the door, and right down the street. Yes, I know that most Western language teachers don’t want to admit this – after all we need some crutch to maintain our smug sense of superiority (‘Sure they’re good at math b-b-but…’).

 

 

 

 

Ah, good old Western critical thinking, with its fondness for blanket statements, knee-jerk polemics, double-espresso sized hubris, ready susceptibility to ideology, and propensity to resort to conspiracy theories as all-purpose interpretive mechanisms. Interestingly, most English-classroom CT proponents don’t even understand what critical thinking is – mistakenly conflating the skill with prescriptive cynicism, skepticism, or the habitual questioning of the status quo.

 

A note here to self-proclaimed progressive (talk about oxymoronic nomenclature!) fanboys of critical pedagogy: regurgitating stock phrases is nor critical thinking! And, hey, let’s not mince words here, the average English teacher CT proponent believes that CT means having learners parrot the teacher’s highly developed, sophisticated ideologies. The implicit assumption is inevitably that the locals must somehow be ‘behind the curve’ or imprisoned in limiting, narrow world views — because they are not your world views.

 

“Learner apathy towards (CT) topics is not tantamount to ‘passive acceptance of the status quo'”

 

And a note to the EFL world:  if learners display hesitation when ambushed by CT in the language classroom it is not because they are not critical thinkers. And, allow me to repeat myself, it is most certainly not because English is somehow inherently imbued with such virtuous qualities. Rather, it is because the students are already critically capable enough to:

  1. …not venture opinions on issues they actually know diddly-squat about
  2. …realize that most personal and social issues are multi-faceted and are caused by multi-varietal features (read – sensei’s CT ‘logic’ will come across as simple-minded to many. No you are not ‘challenging’ their ‘identities’ by exposing them to ‘alternatives’ to the ‘dominant discourse’. You’re being presumptuous and bossy. After all, they’ve already encountered that stuff –why assume that they haven’t?)
  3. …already have critical thinking skills because – get ready for this radical revelation — they are sentient beings (hence the arrogance inherent in assuming that they are not). (Sidebar – my own son was once subject to a lesson in which a ‘critical thinking English teacher’ labored over explaining the difference between facts and opinions — to which my son’s (unstated) response was ‘No sh– Sherlock!’)
  4. …recognize that interpersonal harmony is not enhanced by casual fist waving from ideological zealots
  5. …are humble enough to recognize that the language classroom is not a suitable forum to indulge in personal testimony
  6. …understand that learner apathy towards these particular topics is not tantamount to ‘passive acceptance of the status quo’ or being ‘unquestioning of authority’

Then there is the added reality that many ESL learners come from countries that suffered under horrible ‘antithetical’ ‘critical’ ideologies (yup, that Khmer Rouge certainly ‘critiqued’ the hell out of the status quo).

 

 

 

 

Now, most readers know that I teach medical students. And, hey, don’t medical students have to use critical thinking in order to develop a differential diagnosis, to systematically rule out certain hypothesis in favor of more likely ones? Bingo – and this is indeed an archetypical example of critical thinking. But the key point is that I don’t teach them how to do it  — they can (and will) develop and apply those skills in Japanese. I simply give them cognitively-engaging tasks in which they are required to use critical thought because I want them to be able express the complex clinical content in English, and not because I think — with them being Japanese and all – that they’re somehow inherently inferior when it comes to using CT and therefore need gaijin sensei’s enlightened input. CT is a clinically applied category — not a linguistic one.

 

“Any parent whose child becomes subject to a foreign language teacher’s lessons on critical thinking should think seriously about having their child leave that school”

 

 Actually, I actively encourage ESP teachers to create tasks that require learners to use CT — just don’t indulge the conceit that your somehow teaching them how to think critically. In one case, I conducted a Medical Poster session class in which one student created a poster on ‘Issues in the treatment of gender fluid persons’ – Fine. It was a well-designed, informative poster — and one very much in the progressive vein, but the key point is that she came up with the idea and contents herself. I didn’t presume the need to push or introduce to this particular mode of thought.

 

In fact, every other academic subject except foreign languages can legitimately apply a CT component. Engineering teachers/professors should explicitly teach engineering students CT skills. Likewise, it makes perfect sense to directly apply the teaching of CT to history, architecture, civic planning, environmental technology, and mathematics (duh!) — but the one place in which the explicit teaching of CT wears no welcome is in the foreign language classroom. So much so that I would advise any parent whose child becomes subject to a foreign language teacher’s lessons on critical thinking should think seriously about having their child leave that school – and, likewise, for operators of language schools to seriously question the hiring of teachers who advocate an approach that is so blatantly disrespectful to their students.

Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

3 Responses to Taking Critical Thinking out of English Teaching Classrooms

  1. Liliana Adamson

    Great article and eye opener. Even our training as language teachers somehow promotes the idea that we are teaching more than a language- that our CT is superior to that of other cultures.
    The whole idea is disrespectful,and even insulting. Sticking to teaching a language, which is hard enough in itself, also takes load off my back. I’m not a philosopher, psychologist or sociologist. I just teach English. 😊

  2. Thanks Liliana.
    Most ESL/EFL training courses now openly discuss and promote language teaching’s role in ‘transforming society’. I recently heard a Western presenter at a conference in Cambodia state explicitly that the goal of language learning was to help bring about ‘social justice’. Yeah, right.

    It’s like taking a yoga class and having the teacher use it as a tool to proselytize his/her religion. Money back please!

    Mike

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