Thursday, 19 January 2012

Thinking Critically


Critical thinking is a subject that I find particularly interesting. In a recent ELTchat, someone asked if it was our responsibility to encourage this kind of thinking as language teachers. My response was to say that it is our duty as educators to help develop engaged and committed learners. If our students are not able to engage with the materials in our classrooms, then why are those materials even there? I find it impossible to accept that there are students who will not be interested in anything.

But where does this inability to critically interact come from? From what I was told by friends and colleagues when I taught in Korea, it seemed that this was not the focus of their education system, rather they preferred the rote remembering and recalling of facts for tests. This seemed to leave some people unable to analyse and decipher material to the level that I would have expected.

It wasn’t a matter of intelligence, these were well educated, intelligent adults. But often when I asked them what they thought of a film they claimed to enjoy, they were unable to give me a well reasoned and formulated response beyond “It was good”, “I liked it” and so on. I’d never experienced this before and it led me to become more interested in what I learned was called critical thinking.

Of course it is worth pointing out that this problem is not unique to Korea, or just Asia, but is a problem in many parts of the world. In an attempt to understand the roots of this situation, I asked my friend and teacher Shieun Yoon MacDonough to reflect on why she, as someone who has been through the Korean education system, thinks this problem occurs.

First of all, Koreans or people from Asian countries are taught not to argue and feel more comfortable in the environment in which people all agree with each other while they do not like those who do not agree. In Asian culture, harmony is thought of as one of the most important virtues. Thus, most people are reluctant to be different from others or disagree with others to cause any conflicts. Though, people have changed a bit with new education system which encourages students to be more creative and independent, still, people don't change in a short time, I think.

Also, Korean education system asks you to give one good correct answer, instead of various different answers. Many English teachers are frustrated with people saying "I'm fine, thank you, and you?" whenever they ask "How are you?".

It could be from too much drilling or memorization of the same dialogue. Or, it could be from Korean education system. As far as I know, lots of traditional Korean teachers or students are not happy when they hear students being creative  (or being a smart-ass, as they might say). They believe students' showing different thoughts or opinions is equivalent to challenging teachers or being a show-off. I remember some of the smart students not being favored by teachers at school because of this.

Lastly, I believe the lack of knowledge in the second language also contributes to the problem. Not because they do not understand you (or your question) or because they do not really think deeply about your question, but because they fear the teacher’s next question (which might complicate the conversation between them and the student), EFL students may give the simplest answer possible. Well, I did, when I was young. :)

Shieun’s perspective is insightful because she doesn’t just back up some pre-conceived notions I had, but also posits an interesting problem with her last point. Being brought up in an education system like the one she describes does not only diminish the skill of expression, but it also reduces the confidence required to assert your own opinion, even if you have the necessary linguistic and intellectual ability to do so.

And further than that, it is a system that reinforces the status of the teacher as the font of all knowledge, a position that is untenable within a constructive learning environment. So not only does the student have to develop critical skills in a system that doesn’t encourage them, they also have to work on their ability to express them in a foreign language to a figure that they’ve been taught their whole lives to treat as the oracle. No wonder they struggle.

A big thank you to Shieun for her contribution. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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