By Jeanette Mooney
“Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.”
― Richard Paul
Critical thinking is not about overanalysing your language choices (the what, the words), but rather about analysing the processes involved in reaching those choices (the why, the process). The more we foster the latter as trainers, the more we enable our participants to make authentic, autonomous language choices that reflect their personal communication intentions.
Participants will always look to you as their trainer to be the guide, the results driver and the bearer of language and grammar truths. The problem is that we trainers don’t have all the answers, and even if we did, they would be different. If you’re used to working with British English and have at any time inherited an American English course or vice versa, you’ll know what I mean. It’s not easy going from a specific language set to a global one that employs patterns outside of the scope of what you have been taught first. It’s like trying to break any habit: hard. One the upside, learning that there are more Englishes than one definitive one opens up new language possibilities and that can’t be bad.
Surely then, it must be our goal to encourage the why (the processes involved in dissecting and understanding new language input), which in turn supports the what (the real word choices we end up making). If you know Bloom’s taxonomy, you might think of this as concentrating joint efforts on the upper rather than lower area of the hierarchy.
Here are four ways in which we can truly encourage thinking critically about language choices:
1. Embrace the corpus
Where would we be without poetry? Without language experiment? Without risk? If you’re working on writing skills, think of your word choice, your target readers, what you want to say and how you want to say it and employ a corpus. A corpus is a body of texts and words (mostly collected in databases) that provides access to natural linguistic information. If you’re a journalist, you might want to access a corpus to check news terminology. If you’re an academic, you might want to cross check your use of terminology with that of other academic texts. The critical sweet spot is one you’ll have to find for yourself – but have fun exploring the language possibilities while you’re there.
2. Cultivate independent decision-making
Take yourself (as a trainer) out of the training equation more often. Think of teaching or training in terms of guiding or prompting and then letting go. Explore the idea of group consensus, appoint ‘experts’ (think collaborative learning models) and then rotate roles to effect learning from multiple perspectives. Think of yourself as the mirror rather than the oracle. Writing exercises offer the ideal balance of discussion and fixing language onto paper. Offering exercises that involve both channels will liven the discussion and make the content even more ‘sticky’.
3. Be critical of your language choices
This is similar to embracing the corpus, but does not require the science as much. Synonym games and free association exercises are excellent for building up a personal language style that preserves the authenticity of a person’s first language while exploring the second. Try mnemonics or storytelling exercises and lose the goal or the purpose of the exercise, which alleviates the pressure of having to perform or learn. Concentrate on the fun aspect of wording up. Consider multimodal learning: same content but across all learning channels making critical language choice almost a by-product on the fly.
Make your own word or picture memory game using a set register that is relevant to your participants. Play and discuss usage in different contexts. Great activator, too.
4. Go lateral AND deep
Knowing that you know what you know doesn’t make it fact unless you can back it up. Separating fact from opinion is a prerequisite to any academic writing. So is broadening your repertoire: language, understanding and application. Try basing exercises and topics around language issues that can encourage critical thinking. Deep dive possibilities without the groupthink by asking questions that matter. Focus on the process of finding answers rather than the results.
It pays to think about how you train what you do. You’ll find that your participants will easily provide you with the what. By rethinking your methods, encourage discovery and remembering that answers and solutions are rarely finite, you’ll encourage learning that’s intrinsically motivated.