Developing critical thinking skills with Dr Sara Hannam

At the centre of the learning philosophy in many English speaking universities is the idea that academic thinking requires balanced judgement reached through exploring multiple points of view. It is believed that a simplistic right/wrong approach is limiting and listening to alternatives is likely to lead to a better outcome. This more complex way of considering issues is often referred to as critical thinking, a term that is used widely in further and higher education. There are many different interpretations of what this may mean but a useful definition is the idea of looking at issues from a number of perspectives.

Using our critical mind is an ongoing process which continues throughout our lives. We all have biases (areas of thinking where we have a ‘blind spot’). Therefore, critical thinking is about becoming aware of our biases and challenging our own thinking. Another widely held misconception is the fact that the term ‘critical’ is often seen in its negative sense rather than as an opportunity to explore issues more thoroughly, thereby bringing about more informed viewpoints.

  • At a very basic  level, critical thinking is the act of questioning information by asking  where it comes from, who has said/written it, what their motivation was for  doing so and what world view it represents. World view means the ideas that  underpin each person’s understanding of how people and relationships interconnect.  A simple example of this would be when a person says ‘I think everyone benefits from some competition in their workplace’, expressing a view that  demonstrates that they believe competition to be positive for everyone. Although  this might be seen as common sense by many people there is another view which  is that in fact some people work more effectively when they are part of a collaborative team which works together to achieve a shared goal.
  • At university level, it is hoped that students are able to notice these biases in the writing and  speaking of others, as well as consulting expert opinion and research in the formation of their own ideas. It is also hoped they will learn to spot inferred as well as literal meaning. This demonstrates they are able to exercise critical judgment. Whenever you are working with a spoken or written text, try to help your  students notice biases and read between the lines. When they are in discussion  with each other, try to help them become more self-aware about their own viewpoints in relation to those around them.
  • At a deeper level, there is another stage of critical thinking which relates to how students  process the information they have unpacked. If students are looking at a text  about global warming, they may have discussed it and agreed there is a need for  action in the interests of protecting future generations. The lesson might end  at that point…
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Dr Sara Hannam

Dr Sara Hannam is the Deputy Academic Director of Pathways English at Oxford Brookes University. Sara has extensive experience of teaching and designing materials at all level of EAP provision, and is particularly interested in bringing critical pedagogy and practice into university EAP teaching in concrete and accessible ways.