The Role of Critical and Creative Thinking in TESL Context
by Dr. Paritosh Chandra Dugar, Vice-Principal, SMB Govt. P.G. College, Nathdwara(Rajasthan)
The paper is an endeavour to study the role of critical and creative thinking driven especially by questioning in enhancing the efficacy of TESL and learning of L2 in India.
If we as teachers of English asked our students to tell which questions naturally occurred to them at first on looking at the title of the paper, we would, most likely, receive the following responses:
(1) What is critical thinking?
(2) What is creative thinking?
(3) What is TESL context?
(4) What is the connection between critical thinking and creative thinking?
Though these questions are different from each other, they symptomatize the onset of a common cognitive phenomenon , that is, thinking. Questions stimulate thinking.
Since these questions are posed by students, they need to be answered. Let us consider the first one: What is critical thinking?
The term critical thinking is variously defined. Some regard it as the “ability to think for one’s self and reliably and responsibly make those decisions that affect one’s life”; some consider it as “reasonable, reflective, and skillful thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do”; and a few think it to be a method of “how to think” rather than “what to think.” The following are some of the most widely-accepted definitions of critical thinking:
(1) According to Keeley and Browne, “Critical thinking consists of an awareness of a set of interrelated critical questions, plus the ability and willingness to ask and answer them at appropriate times.”
(2) Richard Paul defines critical thinking as “that mode of thinking—about any subject, content or program—in which the thinker improves the quality of his or
her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.”
(3) Fisher calls critical thinking “skilled and active interpretation and evaluation of observations and communications, information and argumentation.”
(4) Moore and Parker define it more narrowly as “the careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which one accepts and rejects it”(Moore & Parker 72).
(5) As defined by Halpern, critical thinking is “the use of cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome”(Halpern 5).
(6) In P. Chane’s view, “critical thinking is the ability to analyze facts, generate and organize ideas, defend opinions, make comparisons, draw inferences, evaluate
arguments and solve problems”(Chane 6).
(7) Wikipedia states that “critical thinking employs not only logic(either formal or, much more, informal) but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance.”
(8) According to Kurfiss, “critical thinking is an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it”(Kurfiss 2).
(9) Paul and Binker hold, “critical thinking is disciplined, self-directed thinking. It requires thinking about your thinking while you are thinking in order to make
your thinking more clear, more accurate and more defensible.”
As we look at these definitions, we may gather that critical thinking encompasses a broad range of skills and sub-skills which Benjamin Bloom tried to describe theoretically through his Taxonomy of Critical Thinking skills: “Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. Apart from this, experts like C. Wade have identified eight characteristics of critical thinking:
Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding
over-simplification, considering other interpretations and tolerating ambiguity(Wade 26).
Besides, B.K. Beyer has emphasized two essential aspects of critical thinking: Dispositions and Criteria. According to him, “critical thinkers are skeptical, open-minded, value fairmindedness, respect evidence and reasoning, respect clarity and precision, look at different points of view and will change positions when reason leads them to do so”(Beyer 12). About criteria, he says that to think critically, criteria must be applied. “The critical thinker,” he argues, “needs to have conditions that must be met for something to be judged as believable”(Beyer 12).
The next question from students is: What is creative thinking?
In contrast to critical thinking, creative thinking is, however, not so diversely defined. The one given by Kathleen Cotton is generally considered as the most acceptable definition of creative thinking:
[Creative thinking is a ] novel way of seeing and doing things that is characterized by four components: (a) Fluency(generating ideas), (b) Flexibility(shifting perspectives easily), (c) Originality (consisting of something new), and (d) Elaboration(building on existing ideas). (Quoted in Suvarna 42)
However, functionally, the two—critical and creative thinking—do not stand in contrast to each other. Rather, they are “interrelated and complimentary aspects of thinking.” In The Nature and Functions of Critical and Creative Thinking, Richard Paul argues: “When engaged in high-quality thought, the mind must simultaneously produce and assess, both generate and judge the products it fabricates. In short, sound thinking requires both imagination and intellectual standards”(Paul & Elder 6).
However, the diversity with regard to the definition of critical thinking does create an ambiguity, and the students might pose the question: which of these definitions is the most relevant to our purpose? Here we need to think of the criteria by which to choose the most suitable definition . And here we need to come to the third question: What is TESL context?
The full form of TESL is Teaching English as a Second Language. To be precise, we are referring here to TESL context with regard to India, especially Rajasthan. The TESL context is built up by several aspects such as culture, level, curriculum, pedagogy, resources, teacher’s role, learner’s role, and evaluation. Our understanding of critical and creative thinking enables us to see that the aspect we should be most concerned with here is Pedagogy. No doubt, the question of pedagogy does not stand in isolation. It inevitably warrants a consideration of culture, level, teacher’s role, and learner’s role. A precise, critical consideration of these aspects demands answers to questions such as:
(1) Who are we concerned with here? Native speakers or non-native speakers of English?
(2) What is the educational level and age of students we are concerned with?
(3) What is the most prevalent teaching methodology in India?
(4) Is this methodology bringing about the desired results?
In the TESL context with reference to India we are concerned with non-native speakers between 16 to 20 years of age as students of Higher Secondary at school and undergraduate courses at college. It is generally observed that the most prevalent teaching methodology is teacher-centric which encourages learning of L2 through rote-memorization rather than through thinking and understanding. It does not encourage questioning on the part of teachers as well as students. It involves imparting of knowledge about the language rather than the use of the language. In most ESL classes in India, English is taught as a subject and not as a tool for communication. R. Joseph Ponniah points out that here “teaching is focused on to meet the requirements of examinations and to hone the communication skills of students. In most of the schools and colleges, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas, the bilingual or the translation method of teaching is adopted.” As a result, students fail to acquire fluency in the target language. They fail to develop the ability to write and speak English on their own.
The teachers treat their students as “empty vessels which need to be filled.” They focus more on drilling them to memorize notes or readymade answers given by them. The individuality of the student is often ignored . As a result , the thinking abilities of students are never fully developed. As a result, they sit in the class silently with a silent mind. This approach of teaching is squarely denounced by Paulo Friere who calls it “banking approach.” Friere, instead, advocates “dialogical approach” of teaching.
In the absence of thinking(self-directed or critical and creative thinking) most students are unable to do anything on their own in a language class. Thinking is crucial to learning a language. Thinking implies involvement of the entire personality in the learning process. As Kabilan rightly observes, “To become proficient in a language learners need to use creative and critical thinking through the target language.” Teaching students “how to think” rather than “what to think” is a way of recognizing their individuality and their potential for thinking and learning on their own and demanding accountability from them and thereby motivating them to learn the application of their knowledge.
If our understanding of TESL context makes us recognize the importance of thinking in TESL, it must provide us the criteria by which to choose the definition(s) of critical thinking most relevant to our purpose. Do not the following criteria seem most plausible here?:
(1) The definition should encompass the commonest aspects/characteristics of critical
(2) The definition should be pragmatically applicable to the specific TESL context.
By these criteria the following definitions turn out to be the most suitable:
(1) Critical thinking is the ability to analyze facts, generate and organize ideas, defend opinion, make comparisons, draw inferences, evaluate arguments and solve problems.
(2) Critical thinking is disciplined, self-directed thinking. It requires thinking about your thinking while you are thinking in order to make your thinking more clear, more accurate, and more defensible.
Now, if we recognize the importance of critical and creative thinking in learning a language, we should equally recognize the importance of questioning in developing and using the former. For if we look at the definitions including the chosen ones, we find questioning to be one of the commonest aspects and requirements of thinking. The reason being, thinking is best driven by questions and not by answers. In the Critical
Thinking Handbook, Basic Theory and Instructional Structures, it is argued that “Questions define tasks , express problems and delineate issues. Answers, on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought…only students who have questions are really thinking and learning. Students need question to turn on their intellectual engines and they need to generate questions to get their thinking to go somewhere.” True, questions provide direction to vague, confused, and chaotic thinking which tends to degenerate into daydreaming and fantasizing—purposeless thinking. Questions create cognitive pressure on students to think in a precise and clear manner, to look for the right expression, to defrost their vocabulary, and to apply the grammatical knowledge of the target language.
Prominent scholars like Paul Friere and Benjamin Bloom have acknowledged and emphasized the vital role of questioning in the students’ construction of knowledge in any subject as well as in learning a language by both native and non-native speakers. If Bloom has created a Taxonomy of Questions based on his Taxonomy of Critical Thinking Skills, Friere has gone to the extent of introducing the “Pedagogy of Questions” and Richard Paul has come up with his idea of Socratic Questioning. Friere considers questioning as crucial and integral to his dialogical approach of teaching. This approach, in direct contrast to “banking approach” and “didactic approach”, recognizes the individuality of students and stimulates their active learning. Friere’s concept of the “Pedagogy of Questions,’ as M.K. Kabilan explains, “requires posing questions to learners and listening to learners’ questions. This is a practice which forces and challenges the learners to think creatively and critically, and to adopt a critical attitude to the world.”
Looked at from the teacher’s perspective, questioning as a method of critical and creative thinking may prove both diagnostic and curative. Seen from the student’s angle, questioning is both the cause and the effect, the process and the product of thinking.
Inspired by the ideas and concepts of Friere and Bloom and motivated by his own experience of teaching English in various colleges of Rajasthan, the author of this paper conducted two modest experiments in the undergraduate classes of his college to find out whether a strategic employment of questioning really improves the writing skills and interpretive skills of students in qualitative and quantitative terms.
In the first experiment conducted on 5.9.09 in the First Year B.A. class, the students were given simple topics (like My Friend, My Neighbour, My Face, My Teacher, My College etc.) for writing as many simple sentences as possible within the allotted time of 5 minutes. On the completion of the task each student was asked to read aloud her sentences. It was found that most students were unable to write more than 3-4 meaningful sentences. Only 2 out of 18 students could go upto 5-7 sentences. Then the author asked them to ask questions beginning with What, How, Why, Who, When, and Where related to their individual topics and try again if they could write a little more within the allotted time of 5 minutes. This time no student came up with less than 12-15 sentences.
The maximum was 17. The following is an example of a student who wrote on “My Friend.” The questions she posed are on the left side and her sentences are on the right:
Questions beginning with “What” Sentences
1. What is my friend’s name? My friend’s name is Rekha Verma.
2. What does she do? She is studying in B.A. I year.
3. What does her father do? Her father sells fruit.
4. What is her father’s name? Her father’s name is Suresh Verma.
5. What are her hobbies? Her hobbies are playing, reading, and talking.
6. What does she like the most? She likes perfume the most.
7. What does she do in the morning? She does yoga in the morning.
8. What does she do in the evening? She goes for a walk in the evening.
Questions beginning with “Where”
9. Where does she live? She lives in Hiran Magri, Sector-5.
10.Where does she study? She studies at my college.
11, Where does she go in the evening? She goes to a park in the evening.
Questions beginning with “How”
12. How does she talk? She talks very loudly.
13. How does she look like? She looks very beautiful.
Questions beginning with “Who”
14. Who is my best friend? My best friend is Rekha Verma.
15. Who is her sister? Sunita is her sister.
Yes-No type Questions
16. Is she helpful? Yes. She is very helpful.
17. Is she a good girl? Yes. She is a good girl.
This experiment involved creative thinking in its initial phase.
In the second experiment, conducted on 15.9.09 in the class of Final Year B.A. students, the students were exposed to the title of a famous novel by Ernst Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. Then, the author began to have a dialogue with a group of 5 students by posing questions to them to elicit their intelligent guesses about the context of the novel:
A: What’s your guess? Where does the old man live?
S: I am not sure. Maybe he lives at the seashore or maybe elsewhere.
A: All right. Let’s consider your first guess. If he lives at the seashore, what do you think should
he be doing there?
S: Maybe he is catching the fish as a fisherman. Maybe he is doing nothing.
A: Why do you think he is doing nothing?
S: Because he is old, and old people do nothing.
A: Is it true of all old people?
S: Oh, no. I don’t mean that.
A: Suppose he is a fisherman, doesn’t he have difficulty in catching the fish because he is old?
S: Yes. If he is very old, it must be very difficult.
A: And suppose he is alone. Then?
S: Then, it must be very, very difficult.
A: What problems do you imagine does a fisherman who is very old and alone have to face in in catching the fish?
S: Old people are not physically strong. They get tired. They can’t catch big fish. Going to sea is very risky for them.
A: Do all old people who are physically weak are mentally and morally weak too? What about their will power or courage?
S: No. I don’t think so. Some of them may have strong will power.
A: Suppose this old man has a strong will power.
S: Then he will be able to catch the fish.
A: Good, good. Now, would you read the novel and find out for yourself if you have made right guesses?
This was an experiment that involved the earliest stages of critical thinking.
The outcome of the two experiments validate the assumption that questioning does stimulate critical and creative thinking and that critical and creative thinking does enhance the efficacy of TESL and learning of L2. However, no sweeping generalizations are claimed here because of the experiments being quasi in nature and for lack of extensive empirical evidence. Nonetheless, it may be safely stated that questioning as a pedagogic device essentially aiming at stimulating critical and creative thinking in adult learners is an idea worth-exploiting in the TESL context.
In a broader and perhaps more important perspective, the importance of turning students into critical and creative thinkers has to do a lot with the foundations required for a strong and healthy democracy in which citizens have the ability to discover fallacies in the political rhetoric of demagogues, to challenge the status quo, the received dogmas and doctrines and the unjust authorities. Besides, the education in critical and creative thinking provides students with tools needed for independent and life-long learning. The strong sense critical thinkers possessing the qualities of fair-mindedness, honesty, integrity, unbiased attitude, respect for other’ viewpoints are more likely to work towards social justice and equality.
Lastly, critical thinking in the present information-age needs to be an integral part of education for it will enable the educated people to cope with rapidly changing world. On this point the author shares the belief of Deborah Gough and many other present-day educators that “specific knowledge will not be as important to tomorrow’s workers and citizens as the ability to learn and make sense of new information.”
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