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Critical Thinking—What the Mainstream Classroom
Can Learn from the ESL Classroom
by Steve Schackne
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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.
Whether we are deciding what goods and services to purchase, trying to find out what's going on in the world, or attempting to choose a public official, the lack, or in some cases the abandonment, of critical thinking skills has plunged us into the age of deceit.

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