Critical Thinking—What the Mainstream Classroom
Frustration and discontent are the hallmark of western industrial nations as I write this in December, 2011. Financial and political crises abound; world leaders seem incapable of addressing or solving the severe problems facing us. A sense of cynicism sets in as we are constantly confronted with the unreal and the illogical, which seem to permeate all levels of public policy and discourse.
Here in the United States, where I am now based, the government's attention is currently focused on tax policy; that is, whether to increase taxes on those making over $250,000 in order to raise tax revenues and help offset a budget deficit. The issue is presented as a political/moral discussion —should we raise taxes on a group of people who can basically afford to pay those taxes? If so, how much should we raise those taxes? And to what extent should we cut spending to further help reduce the deficit, and would that spending cut harm poorer individuals who benefit from Federal programs that might be cut? It is simply reduced to an argument on fairness and numbers. But because it hasn't been fully thought out, the assumptions implicit in the current discussion may be false.
"The rich" already pay at the highest marginal rate in the U.S. and, even with generous tax loopholes, they contribute the highest percentage of revenue to the Federal coffers, so there is a moral argument there. But, the aggregate wealth in the United States lies in the middle class, not the rich, so logically tax policy must be focused on them, not the rich. Furthermore, Arthur Laffer, the economist, has done years of research on the issue of taxation, which has led to the "Laffer Curve," a phenomenon which posits that as tax rates go up, people sometimes react by shielding or forgoing their income, behavior which leads to the reduction, not increase, of tax revenue. If we look at this added data, then the argument shifts from "is it fair to increase taxes on the rich?" to "will increasing taxes on the rich increase tax revenue?" Critical thinking has changed the whole dynamic of the debate.
These conundrums crop up with increasing frequency: a scandal at an American university where eyewitnesses to a felony report to college administrators instead of law enforcement officers, no tolerance laws in primary/middle schools where teenagers are suspended for carrying an aspirin to school and pre-teens are disciplined because they hugged on the playground.
Several states have been considering a regulation that would forbid images on LED signs fronting public highways, but would allow text. A strong argument could be made that while an (non-provocative) image creates a flash impression, text needs to be decoded and would demand more of a driver's attention, thereby making text on a sign more of a public danger.
All of the examples I have cited have one factor in common—they involve inflexible set choices without examining underlying consequences which might lead to better alternative choices; they all exemplify a superficial, uncritical approach to a problem.
The Traditional ESL Approach
The traditional, some might say old, approach to teaching academic writing in the ESL classroom involved the 5-paragraph essay. The thesis statement, or controlling idea, appeared at the end of the introduction. The body paragraphs, which tried to develop the thesis statement, contained a topic sentence which was a statement of intent or a statement of opinion which had to be supported by the use of details, description, examples, personal experience, or facts and statistics. The thesis statement or the topic sentence could not be a simple assertion of fact, which if it is presented as a fact, can not be disproven.
Most of the public controversies today present a range of opinions, which can be strengthened or weakened through support. What is often lacking is the support—details, examples, personal experience, facts, statistics.
At the more advanced levels of ESL, argumentation or persuasion make even more demands on the critical thinking process. The speaker or writer has to present an argument, support it, recognize a counterargument(s) and refute it; the argument and refutation (or rejection) of the counterargument must be thoroughly supported because one's argument and rejection of counterargument can be challenged by those who disagree.
While critical thinking skills are most often associated with higher level students, curriculum emphasizing these skills can be introduced at a lower level. A popular ESL exercise common in the 1980s and 1990s involved a lifeboat adrift in the ocean. The boat contained several people of various stripes—a frail grandmother, a father and young son, a student, a teacher, a priest, an escaped convict, and a few other people. The boat also contained a certain amount of food and water and some gold. The boat was overloaded and could only stay afloat if some of the cargo, human and/or non-human is jettisoned. The students, in small groups, had to choose x number of pounds to throw overboard and then justify their decision. This exercise forced the students to critically think about their values and then to justify their choices as logical, practical, ethical, or necessary. Groups often made very different choices, so students had to focus on their listening skills as well as their speaking skills. These processes of supporting your ideas and of listening to someone who has "a different opinion" is often missing in the public arena.
The Public Forum
The nature of media in the West discourages critical thinking. Most of the features and programming, whether on television, on radio, in newspapers, or on the internet, tend to be presented for entertainment or amusement; consumers mostly crave visual or aural stimuli, not mental stimuli. By its own design, media is marketed as escape, not edification. Serious programming is often brief and superficial, such as the 15-minute news broadcast. There are extended news networks such as Fox and CNN, but their schedules are increasingly dominated by entertainment and sports news. The attention span for entertainment tends to be longer than for hard news.
Advertising is even worse. Ad campaigns, notably in the areas of financial instruments, nutritional supplements, and medical procedures, are often transparently false, yet they attract a lot of business.
Political debates are carefully stage-managed. Attacks and rebuttals are often brief, and emphasize emotion more than logic or serious analysis. Shouting matches and verbal provocation on radio and television often masquerade as political commentary. Critical thinking is held in such contempt in the West that it has spawned its own contemporary lexicon—sound bite, gotcha moment, talking points, double down, bottom line, fair share, and hope and change are all negotiable concepts that carry the speaker/writer's opinion, but often lack support and clarification.
Furthermore, ad hominem attacks are often used to stifle critical thinking and sober discussion—calling a person a communist, un-American, or racist quickly ends any serious debate or discussion. Another term, currently in vogue, which is used to evade critical evaluation of an issue is the curt dismissal, you just don't get it.
Debate and discussion in Western society is often superficial, relying on emotion, eschewing logic. There is a noticeable lack of critical thinking both in the media and in public discourse. This uncritical approach to contemporary issues, relying on emotion and imagery, avoiding serious analysis and discussion, may be unintentional; that is, our public communicators may be incapable, both intellectually and temperamentally, of engaging in serious debate. It also may be intentional, a cynical ploy in order to deceive or manipulate.
Critical thinking skills are addressed in the ESL classroom. Through problem solving, and persuasion and argumentation, students are taught how to support an opinion with evidence, and how to refute an argument with detailed analysis, counterargument, and refutation.
A renewed emphasis on critical thinking skills must be instituted in our mainstream classrooms before students reach university. A logical starting point would be to look at how critical thinking skills are handled in the ESL classroom.
Anatomy of English Writing
II. BODY PARAGRAPHS
The Topic Sentence
Textbooks and Listening
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