At some point in your ESL teaching career, you might notice that certain skills that we take for granted in most western countries are almost alien concepts in some parts of the world, and vice versa. Depending where you are, and on the educational background of your students, you may be surprised to learn that concepts that are central to primary and secondary state education in the UK or America are not necessarily part of the curriculum in other countries.
Having this understanding that educational and cultural backgrounds can give students very different types of ‘meta-skills’ is of great use to understanding their perspectives on your lessons. Even though it is not typically part of most standard TEFL curricula, the encouragement to develop skills broadly described as ‘thinking about thinking’ can have an amazingly positive effect on the learning process in any setting and/or subject, English language tuition included.
An example of what we might call a ‘meta-skill’ is that of being able to think hypothetically. Without this ability, it is quite difficult to teach conditionals, for example. It is not always as simple as teaching the grammatical rules in conditional sentence construction. We may need to look at the the very notion of a hypothetical situation itself, why it may be of use to us and when we might use it.
I have heard of and witnessed many instances in which certain students do not quite understand the concept of a hypothetical situation. What would be the purpose in imagining that they were a millionaire, or of the opposite gender, for example? If a student does not understand the concept, how can he or she know how or when to use it, or indeed have any interest in it?
Another key critical thinking skill can be summed up in a one-word question – WHY? If students are not encouraged to dig deeper intellectually, question why things are as they are, their meaning, cause and purpose, then the work they produce is likely to be of a lesser quality than another student in the same class who continues the ‘digging’ process of really getting to the bottom of things.
Typically, a student who ‘digs’ will produce longer, more detailed paragraphs in written work and far more sophisticated spoken conversations. He or she will also be able to contextualise in listening and reading tasks in order to form justified conclusions, i.e. those based on evidence.
Critical thinking can benefit both student and tutor in terms of identifying how to develop the quality of both teaching and learning. The above are just two of many simple critical thinking skills that can do so, but not just in TEFL class or even only within a formal education setting but more generally in life itself.