Teaching Critical Thinking from Both the Psychologists’ and Philosophers’ Perspectives

CarolNumrichCarol Numrich

When language educators include critical thinking activities in their lessons, not only do they raise student interest and motivation, but they also prepare students for one of the key 21st-century skills needed in today’s world. Though most educators agree that critical thinking is an essential skill, there is not always agreement on how to define or teach it. In fact, over recent decades, two camps have developed: psychologists, who believe that problems have correct answers and definable solutions, and philosophers, who argue that problems are complex, ambiguous, and often have no solutions. Interestingly, both views can contribute to more successful learning of a second language.

The psychologists’ approach to teaching critical thinking is based on developing cognitive skills. When we ask language students to categorize vocabulary, compare and contrast arguments, or synthesize ideas from two or more sources, we engage them in higher-level thinking tasks. When we include inference and interpretive-level questions in  comprehension exercises, we teach students to read and listen to text more critically, to dig below the literal surface  level of comprehension to infer an author’s or speaker’s point of view.

The philosophers’ approach to teaching critical thinking — equally important to language development — is based on truth seeking. To get to the truth, we must become comfortable with ambiguity: Questions do not always have clear, definitive answers. When we ask students to examine their assumptions about the world and later re-evaluate those assumptions after learning something new, we teach students to move beyond their personal knowledge and opinions and broaden their perspectives. When we ask students to engage with material that may not represent their own views or take a stand on an issue after examining different points of view, we teach them to be more open-minded in their reasoning.

The psychologists’ and philosophers’ approaches to teaching critical thinking each promote learner involvement and create opportunities for deeper-level processing of language and concepts. There is an important place for both types of critical thinking activities in today’s language classroom.

Carol Numrich is senior lecturer at the American Language Program, Columbia University. She is interested in research and materials development for listening comprehension and critical thinking in second-language learning. In cooperation with National Public Radio®, she has published several listening textbooks using authentic broadcast material. She is also a co-editor of the NorthStar series.