Critical Thinking Questions in Language Textbooks

There’s a textbook series called “Weaving It Together.” It’s pretty much a grand waste of time for any purposes it claims to serve. The articles are boring. The questions are mostly stupid comprehension questions that require minimal effort to answer. The grammar portions are oversimplified when they aren’t just wrong. They’re basically a way to kill time while making it seem like students are doing substantial work. The students like the book well enough because they don’t have to do any real work, just hunt, peck, and rewrite, or transform interrogatives into declaratives and fill in appropriate nouns.

Only one question in the whole text had a prayer of breaking the cycle. In their chapter “Perfume” (I shit you not, there is a whole chapter about the history of perfume!), the final question was: “Do you think that people have a right to wear perfume when other people may not like it?”

I like this question because, first, it’s not a question about perfume, but is one about rights, and discussions about rights are more interesting.
However, the issue with a question about rights is that any answer that anyone gives is problematic.

When I went about showing how both affirmative and negative answers have consequences that they don’t accept, the students just threw up their hands and surrendered! “Oh, teacher! Every answer I write will be wrong!”

I then told them that most questions worth asking in life don’t have one simple answer, and that they’d have to learn to think critically about a problem before they proposed an answer to it.

More sighs…

Most students in that class are at a point where they’ll stagnate if they don’t engage questions like this. They’ll need to consider some higher-level thoughts in the language beyond “The ancient Romans used perfume often,” but it seems that getting them to make that step is like trying to ride a horse over a cliff.

The topic of rights was relevant to them, and they were emotively responsive to it, especially when I countered the negative answer by stating that the PRC doesn’t like for ROC officials to claim that Taiwan a separate country from Mainland China, and it would follow, based on similar reasoning, that the ROC officials don’t have a right to do so.

How does one get a ball rolling in this direction?

You might get some use out of this site: breakingnewsenglish.com

Many of the “discussion questions” included are “open-ended” questions of this type. It’s not hard to make up your own. Start introducing them when discussing any topic that comes up.

This is a time when group discussion can be of benefit. They might get more ideas rolling in small groups. You could do some simple brainstorming type stuff–as an example “benefits of perfume” and “disadvantages of perfume” or whatever for a warmup.

That’s a good question by the way. I’ll probably use it. It might even make a good debate question “side A–you think perfume should be banned (what you really think is irrelevant)” “side B–you believe people have the right to smell how they want” banal yet complex enough to be interesting.

My training is in philosophy, so I’m not short of open-ended questions, but of students who are willing to engage them. “Socrates Cafés” have tried to train children to think like philosophers, but I didn’t want to make them face Descartes or Rawls when they weren’t all that willing to undergo the process of working up to constructing a defensible argument.

But I worry, too, that part of it is not wanting to challenge me, since I played an equal opportunity knockdown arguer for the group.

I’ll take your advice and mediate the discussion if ever time allows me to organize such an activity. Then I’ll just offer argumentative assists and corrections to bad argumentation.

Socrates was not of Chinese culture. You’re assuming because kids can manage to speak some English, they can/will think like Westerners. 'Taint so. Nor should it necessarily be so.

I might use the perfume debate in one of my advanced 6th/7th grade classes.

I have actually been surprised by amount of thinking that some students are capable of. It can be extremely difficult to bring this out though.

[quote=“ehophi”]
My training is in philosophy, so I’m not short of open-ended questions, but of students that are willing to engage them.[/quote]

Ahhh. What age level are your students ehophi?

[quote=“Abacus”]

I have actually been surprised by amount of thinking that some students are capable of. It can be extremely difficult to bring this out though.[/quote]

Yep, it takes time. I think you have to present such an expectation very early, and gradually build on it.

Thought and language use go together though. It won’t hurt anyone to try thinking about things from different angles.

A simple four-paragraph essay is a good tool in this direction as well. 1. introduction/personal experience 2. arguments supporting perfume 3. arguments against perfume 4. opinions and conclusions.

[quote=“Tempo Gain”]

It’s actually more about finding the right ways to bring it out. This particular class simply does not like to talk or participate in class outside of 2 students. But for some reason they write well and honestly. I was very surprised by their writing when given an open ended ‘problems of Taiwan’ essay several months ago. Funny, creative and relevant. It was easy to see the influence that their blue collar upbringing had and they were likely just writing about the complaints that their parents vocalize at home. For example one girl wrote about all of the big, expensive housing being built across the railroad tracks in the Art Museum area. Another wrote about the people that take our money (tax money - not ghost money) and light it on fire. The papers were just filled with content like this but they would never talk about this in class.

[quote=“Tempo Gain”]

Thought and language use go together though. It won’t hurt anyone to try thinking about things from different angles.[/quote]

Well, perhaps having knowledge about how Westerners think, or considering ideas from a foreign perspective, but expecting kids to suddenly be able to apply linear logic when all their lives they have never been trained in or really exposed to it very much is just not reasonable. No textbook is going to do that, nor a few class discussions. If all it took were a few sessions with a teacher, everyone would be culturally sensitive and there would be very little discussion on these boards. :smiley:

For materials writers, there is a new book on this subject:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00BYG4CE4

I like getting students to do critical thinking activities in class, but classes vary in terms in levels of participation. Most of these types of activities require at least an intermediate level of fluency, as well as students who have something interesting to say. I find it helpful to find topics that students can relate to. Also, I think it’s a good idea to get students to jot down some ideas before they answer questions out loud.

Some books I’ve used with excellent discussion/critical thinking activities include Taboos and Issues and Discussions A-Z Intermediate. I recently got a copy of 52: a year of subversive activity for the ELT classroom, a similar title.

[quote=“ironlady”]
Well, perhaps having knowledge about how Westerners think, or considering ideas from a foreign perspective, but expecting kids to suddenly be able to apply linear logic when all their lives they have never been trained in or really exposed to it very much is just not reasonable. No textbook is going to do that, nor a few class discussions. If all it took were a few sessions with a teacher, everyone would be culturally sensitive and there would be very little discussion on these boards. :smiley:[/quote]

Oh sure. From my viewpoint though given a few years with a group you can do a lot in this direction, but I have that luxury.

Thanks T, I’ll take a look at those for sure.

[quote=“Tempo Gain”]You might get some use out of this site: breakingnewsenglish.com
[/quote]

This article from the site cracked me up XD

[quote]The Czech Republic’s ambassador to the United States has made it very clear that his country is not Chechnya. He was alarmed that many U.S. social media users were leaving messages on Twitter and Facebook to say that the Boston Marathon bombers were from the Czech Republic. Many of the posts called for America to get revenge on the Czech Republic. The ambassador, Petr Gandalovic, put a statement on the Czech embassy website to educate people about the difference between his country and Chechnya. It read: “The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities - the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.”

Read more: breakingnewsenglish.com/1304 … z2RGpagJXo
[/quote]

Oh my XD

[quote=“Tempo Gain”][quote=“ehophi”]
My training is in philosophy, so I’m not short of open-ended questions, but of students that are willing to engage them.[/quote]

Ahhh. What age level are your students ehophi?[/quote]

They’re junior high school students.

A couple of things:

First, linear logic means something technical and specific. Nowadays, we tend to use “formal logic” to refer to the logic that has its strict written notation and proof, and “informal logic” to refer to the use of logical reasoning in actual discussions. I would only train the students in the basics of the latter (e.g. spotting fallacies, disambiguating natural language, assessing analogies, etc.) at this stage.
Second, I don’t expect anyone to have logical training. However, there is no means to train a person without his initially willing to engage a problem critically.
Last, cultural mores don’t sufficiently challenge the methods of valid inference. It’s like mathematics. If an ancient tribe has a convention which violates a basic rule of arithmetic, the tribe is wrong, not merely unconventional by “Western standards.” The same applies to logic. Here’s a quick example.

Socratic dialogues and 百家 dialogues are very similar, as are their other modes of philosophical exposition and argumentation. Chad Hansen does shows pretty well that cultural distinctions between Chinese and European philosophical thinkers are not so wildly distant that their reasoning is mutually incommensurable or incoherent, or that one culture as a whole accepts utterly invalid reasoning. Frege provided most of the remaining counterargument which shoots down claims to subjective or culturally bound logics 110 to 120 years ago.

Culture doesn’t affect philosophical work in the way that you’re thinking it does, I’m afraid.

You know, ehopi, someday you’re going to figure out that the people on this board use language as it is used by the masses. You know, the native speakers who have agreed on a common meaning for words?

My point is that different cultural groups have different standards for how they “should” behave in class. Those standards are valid. It is not the case that a Western teacher should march in and expect Western behaviors just because the language being taught is Western. A good example is Hawaiian students. Although they are physically in the United States, Hawaiian students often choose to “just sit” instead of speaking out, because that is a strong cultural value, to learn from others rather than to express one’s own opinion. “Mainlander” teachers who go in and expect them or try to force them to do otherwise have problems – and should. It’s fine to help them realize there are various ways to think and act, but it’s another thing to change the way they think and act. No one has the right to do that. Your culture and your way of thinking are not superior to anyone else’s.

The masses aren’t the authorities on what logic or logical reasoning is, nor should they ever be. I know this because I’ve been debating adults with no experience in logic, and their impression is that logic is “whatever makes sense,” and since plenty of logical ideas are counter-intuitive, it’s an incorrect standard for logical reasoning. I don’t know why that has to be an area of contention.

There’s an extent to which I agree with you, but I don’t take it too far when the differences are important.

I’ve taught logic and critical reasoning to American children, too, and they aren’t behaviorally different in this regard. It’s easy to sit and let other people do one’s thinking, and critical reflection is hard. It requires skills that take time and exposure to cultivate. Many children have never questioned elders or each other rationally before, and it’s a frustrating endeavor for people, no matter one’s age or cultural background.

I’d comment on the rest (I left a link to the strongest area of disagreement), but it really will distract from what I’m seeking on this thread. I think Tempo Gain gives some good advice about how to arrange their discussions, “oppressive” as they may seem to some. My job is to teach them the language, to enable them to use it, and to have the students complete their coursework. My job is not to mimic Chinese teaching methods in so doing. One requirement for the rights question was to write a correct or reasonable response. If that’s culturally chauvinistic, or if the students don’t want to fulfill that requirement, there’s nothing about either issue that requires that I adapt in consideration of classroom cultural norms if doing so entails a failure to fulfill that requirement.

That’s a good age. I have the luxury of starting with beginners and working with them for years, but you can do a lot with kids at that age provided they have some ability. The key IMO is making your goal an expectation starting early and simply, so that you eventually build up to a point where they are doing what you would like them to be doing. Sometimes the first step of that is the light going off of realizing they can’t do something you thought they’d be able to.

:no-no: ehopi, I would not assume that all those who are in your opinion the unwashed masses have not actually studied logic.

Simply saying that American students are behaviorally no different does not address the cultural underpinnings. It only talks about what you observe on the surface, and to which you are ascribing your own value judgements and interpretations.

Going back to the original question, I’ve actually never run into problems encouraging Taiwanese students to debate and offer opinions. But it has to start with force-feeding it to them. There is the aspect everyone cites – lack of thinking outside the box blah blah blah – but I think just as detrimental is the pressure of having to voice your opinion in a foreign language when you lack either confidence or the skill to do so, or both.

So I would hold their hands (metaphorically) by asking if they’ve ever experienced something similar to too much perfume and give them a very specific scenario – let’s say a long elevator ride up to the 30-something floor of a tall office building with someone who is overly fragrant. Then instead of calling on them individually, transition into groups first: raise your hands if you would find it annoying. Raise your hands if you wouldn’t. Now give me some reasons.

Of course I’m just speaking out of my own experience here, and maybe I’ve just been lucky in finding relatively eloquent and engaging students? :2cents:

Are you connoting that I assume this somewhere?

Cultural underpinnings aren’t my concern. My job description does not strictly require cultural sensitivity, but to employ whatever is effective at having students satisfy the requirements of the class.

I only need this observation: The students can’t or won’t answer the question adequately.
Now, I can change nothing, and just wish upon a star that they answer the question adequately, or I can change my approach, and perhaps change the result.

I can’t force-feed critical thinking, unfortunately. Confronting a complex problem requires some time, but what I faced was the opposite – the rush to write any answer on the paper and speed through the rest of the book. The rest of that book is designed to allow for virtually mindless copy-paste routines, but that’s not going to carry them far enough to answer any question of substance in a foreign language. Even a moderately defensible answer would have been alright. What I got from them was nothing of the sort.

I didn’t mention this, but most of the students are proficient enough to address these questions (I edit their handwritten narratives).

:loco:

I’ll buy tickets to the fight when you step into the ring to finally duke it out.