Critical Thinking in Teacher Education
Vinicius Nobre is a managing partner at Troika, a consulting company that develops innovative projects in education. He holds the FTBE, the COTE and the DELTA, and an MA in Professional Development in Language Education from the University of Chichester. Vinnie is a CELTA tutor/assessor and a coursebook writer. He has also co-authored two methodology books: “Getting into Teacher Education: a Handbook” and “Teaching English Today: Contexts and Objectives”. He is also a past president of BRAZ-TESOL.
Even though there seems to be a lot of debate over a unified definition for critical thinking, most researchers and teachers agree with its importance in any learning process. Brown (2004), for instance, states that in an ideal academic English programme, “the objectives of a curriculum are not limited to linguistic factors alone, but also include developing the art of critical thinking.” Many books and articles offer practical ideas to English teachers and encourage us to consider techniques and approaches that will help learners develop problem-solving and decision-making skills, for example. However, do language teachers feel prepared to effectively instill critical thinking and adapt their practice so as to add a new focus on skills that go beyond the language itself? And can teacher trainers take advantage of what we already know about critical thinking in order to revisit initiatives that aim at professional development and better equip trainees?
In order to reflect upon the connection between critical thinking and teacher education, I would like to refer to Brookfield’s (1987) definition. Brookfield states that when we think critically about a given topic, we are forced to consider our own relationship to it and how we personally fit into the context of the issue. In that sense, teacher trainers need to think of how they can help novice - and more experienced teachers - critically reflect upon their relationship to the act of teaching and learning of a foreign language, and also reflect upon the role they play in the entire process. Trainers need to provoke teachers into considering skills, knowledge, awareness and attitudes that go beyond the concrete classroom practice. It is very important that trainers get practitioners to look into their stance towards the students and the institution, for example, and engage in discussions that cover beliefs regarding learning, teaching and professionalism.
In order to specify the characteristics that trainers might want to aim at developing in student teachers, I would like to resort to Ennis (1987). He identified a number of characteristics that are common to critical thinkers. The characteristics include: being open minded and mindful of alternatives; attempting to be well-informed; able to judge well the credibility of sources; able to identify conclusions, reasons, and assumptions; and able to judge well the quality of an argument, including its reasons, assumptions and evidence. He also suggested that critical thinkers would be likely to be able to develop and defend a reasonable position; ask clarifying questions; formulate plausible hypotheses; plan experiments well; define terms in a way appropriate for the context and draw conclusions when warranted. If we look at the competencies that a critical thinker has, we can easily identify a number of characteristics that are also expected to be found in effective teachers. Nevertheless, a lot of training initiatives tend to focus on a very pragmatic aspect of teaching, revolving around the implementation of mechanical techniques and the reproduction of procedures for determined tasks. Therefore, I would like to reinforce the importance of a broader scope for teacher educators that should comprise more than prescriptive tips for classroom management or automatized recipes for drilling.
In my opinion, training programmes need to carefully consider ways to make teachers more critical thinkers. Only after teachers have become more critical themselves, will they be able to change their own practice and move on to help learners develop these skills too. Going back to the characteristics highlighted by Ennis, these are some ideas of what trainers can do in order to incorporate elements of critical thinking into training courses:
- Assess whether teachers are really considering alternatives that go beyond their well-known repertoire of teaching and encourage conscious experimentation with varied methods, approaches and techniques.
- Ask trainees to seek further formal knowledge, setting goals for research and reading - always asking for theoretical justifications for the decisions made.
- Only accept justifications that have sound theoretical background and reject sources whose credibility can be challenged, demanding reference to serious and reliable academic literature.
- Ask for the rationale behind decisions and assumptions about students, their needs and the selected tasks – always challenging trainees to resort to their own knowledge and experience.
- Allow trainees to maintain well-informed discussions about the reasons behind their plans and the on-line decisions made during their teaching.
- Raise awareness of the role that teachers play inside and outside the classroom, considering their interactions with students, fellow teachers, supervisors and the community.
- Instill the need for continuous development and more formal studies.
Both King (1995) and Taba (1966) argue that the level of students’ thinking is strongly influenced by the level of questions which are asked in class. If we take this data into the realms of teacher training, we can therefore say that trainers’ thoughtful questions might play a crucial role in enhancing teachers’ higher level cognitive processes. Teachers who experience this kind of cognitive exercise will then be better prepared to pose the same type of questions to their language learners. In other words, trainers should ask the difficult questions, resort to scaffolding techniques on a regular basis and expect deeper conclusions from trainees in order to get teachers to become more critical, but also to provide trainees with a model of how to trigger critical thinking.
When joining training courses or professional development initiatives of any kind, teachers need to be made aware of the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications. Unfortunately, many training courses are gradually becoming shorter and more prescriptive. Method schools often focus on providing teachers with easy-to-implement techniques and demand that they work by the book – following steps without necessarily understanding the underlying principles of what they are doing. If we want critical thinkers to blossom in our language classrooms, we first need to revisit training frameworks and processes. Critical thinking needs to be an integral part of professional development and trainers have to constantly reflect upon their role in turning teachers into more critical professionals, who are then able to make well-informed decisions, explain why these decisions were made and develop this very same knowledge in their own language learners.
Brookfield, S. (1987). Developing Critical Thinking: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting. San Francisco: Jossey – Bass.
Brown, H. D. (2004). Some practical thoughts about student-sensitive critical pedagogy. The Language Teacher. 28 (7): 23-27
Ennis, R. H. (2003).Critical thinking assessment. In Fasko, Dan (Ed.), Critical thinking and reasoning: Current theories, research, and practice . Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
King, A. (1995). Designing the instructional process to enhance critical thinking across the curriculum. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 13–17.
Taba, H. (1966). Teaching strategies and cognitive functioning in elementary school children. Cooperative Research Project, No. 2404. San Francisco: San Francisco State College.
Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.
Critical Thinking in Teacher Education
Vinicius Nobre, Brazil
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