As a first timer at the IATEFL conference this year, I have realised the great importance of:
1. Choosing your sessions in advance and arriving early
2. Getting enough sustenance (coffee, food…) to last through the day
3. Elbowing your way through a horde of bespectacled savages in order to get one of the last hand-outs at a particularly good workshop.
Not only this, but I also learned a few interesting approaches to the teaching of Critical Thinking Skills thanks to Helen Huntley (Vietnam Director for International Extension Programs, California State University, San Bernardino).
The workshop next to ours had been cancelled, so we were a bit squashed in that little room, with standing room only by the end of it. Despite this, the workshop itself was animated and hands-on, as Helen guided us through some of her activities.
To be honest, I have previously struggled with getting the idea of Critical Thinking across to students from the summer sessions; it seemed that they didn’t always grasp what I meant by evaluating and analysing and using a questioning approach. Helen’s workshop showed me a few ways I might initiate the discussion about Critical Thinking in a different way, by using seemingly simple tasks and examples.
Her hand-out included a number of tasks that demonstrate what Critical Thinking involves on a very basic level. For example, in one task you were given a list of word pairs and you had to explain to a partner which one best describes you: (i.e. Rock or Feather? The present or the future?). As I was doing this with a colleague, we were trying to unravel the meanings behind the words. Did “rock” mean, for example: strong, grounded and dependable, and “feather” mean gentle, etc.? Or did “rock” mean hard-headed and stubborn?
The result was a discussion on what the different words could represent, if you’re describing yourself.
We were also asked to think of as many different uses as possible for an umbrella. Aside from the obvious ones of keeping rain off and using it as a weapon, participants in the workshop came up with more than a dozen uses, many of them quite creative. The point is that it wasn’t a boring activity.
Next, Helen had us look at the different categories from Bloom’s taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. There were brief explanations of each one, followed by a list of questions and activities, as well as the task of discussing: What critical thinking skills are being targeted in each of the following questions/activities?
Finally, this section of the hand-out was followed by several different activities and instructions to say which of the Critical Thinking Skills were being promoted by the different activities.
I like how she presented us with the activities first, made us think about why we were doing these seemingly too-simple activities, and then had us think more carefully about what skills were actually being activated or targeted.
After discussions with other colleagues at the workshop, we talked about how these activities could be a good starting point with students to help them clearly visualise what we mean when we say “critical thinking skills,” get them to talk about what each of those skills entails, and then scaffold that to more complex activities so that they can also apply these skills to more difficult texts.
It is far easier to show what you mean by analysis and synthesis when you’re talking about concrete objects like light bulbs, feathers, and umbrellas (not to mention a bit more visual and fun).