Critical Thinking in Language Teaching: A Rumination

Having spent a series of jam-packed days last week at Music City Center in Nashville at the annual convention of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) with over 7,000 language educators, I find myself several days later back in Vermont quietly reexamining some of the buzz that crossed my path in Tennessee.

First of all, I noticed about myself at ACTFL that, of the myriad sessions offered at this enormous annual conference, I gravitated toward ones with the phrases social justice and critical thinking in their titles. And why not? Social justice and critical thinking — while having always represented important outcomes for teaching and learning — have lately become more essential than ever, not only in education but in day-to-day life. These concepts have gone beyond mere ideals and become what I consider to be a matter of survival.

The field of digital pedagogy revolves around the concept of critical thinking; in the Office of Digital Learning, we describe much of what we do as critical instructional design informed by critical digital pedagogy. Amy Collier recently described this work as “intentionally designing spaces and opportunities for learning that take into account who our students are and who they want to become.” She added that instructional design might not specifically promote the acquisition of knowledge or skills, but that it could instead focus on emotional connection to other humans, the development of empathy, and critical thinking.

Critical thinking is not a new concept in the field of language teaching, either, so it was not hard to come upon sessions addressing this skill at ACTFL last week. The ACTFL 21st Century Skills Map describes critical thinking and problem solving in the same breath, as follows: “Students as inquirers frame, analyze, and synthesize information as well as negotiate meaning across language and culture in order to explore problems and issues from their own and different perspectives.”

On the wall at a session on critical thinking and language teaching at ACTFL 2017

When I came across this definition of critical thinking in one of the sessions I attended at the convention, something gave me pause. I read and re-read these familiar words, trying to get at the root of the problem, but they continued to trouble me. This was not a new definition to me, having fully acquainted myself with the 21st Century Skills Map over the course of my years teaching Spanish. Yet now, in 2017 and looking through a critical pedagogical lens, this way of talking about critical thinking no longer felt like enough. It was too neutral, and it lacked the essence of the thing that to me lies at the very core of critical thinking: judgment.

I have found over the years that in language pedagogy, we shy away from the concept of judgment. We try to stay neutral, in an understandable effort to embrace many nationalities, languages, cultures, and ways of thinking about the world. Critical thinking, though, requires more than this; it asks for us to make a judgment, and in so doing to take a stand. Judgment cannot be left out or assumed, but must be underscored.

Critical thinking does not imply making snap judgments, but rather the sort of judgment informed by evidence and created through the process of carefully questioning what is in front of us and all around us. Critical thinking asks for our clear-headed discernment, and requires our willingness to look below the surface. Our willingness to review the evidence. To deeply ponder. To find something better. Critical thinking means looking with a rational open-mind at the whole picture, and, through the process of analyzing and assessing what we see, to reconstruct that picture from the ground up.

Another definition of critical thinking I stumbled across at the same session, this one from the Foundation of Critical Thinking:

Also on the wall at the same session on critical thinking and language teaching at ACTFL 2017

The framing of critical thinking with specific reference to the act of assessing and improving rests more comfortably within a belief system that values agency and criticality. This definition is not tied to any one field of expertise or subject matter, and interestingly there is an emphasis here as well on the intrinsic motivation of the critical thinker to move toward evaluation and improvement.

There were other discussions centered around critical thinking which I experienced at ACTFL, but I will leave the recounting of those for another day. In closing, I would like to make a call to language pedagogues to reconsider the neutrality with which we tend to talk about and teach critical thinking as foreign language teachers, and in so doing to foster in students a much-needed new criticality within their use of this 21st century skill.


Featured image by Fredrik Rubensson CC BY-SA 2.0

Sonja Burrows

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