21st century has seen globalization, IT boom and the Internet shift the world focus from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based society impacting the ELT paradigm across the world. In the light of rapid pace of socio-economic development and the emergence of information age, demand has arisen for ‘knowledgeable workers’ and ‘smarter graduates’ equipped with a set of new skills and attitude towards work.
Understanding Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is not a new concept and has always remained one of the main goals of education in developing and improving student thinking. However, in the last decade there has been a growing concern that graduates at all levels do not demonstrate higher thinking abilities (Cromwell, 1992). Lack of critical thinking not only affects students’ academic success, but is also likely to affect their personal growth when they start working. It is a core life skill, which every individual requires to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life (WHO, 1999). Critical thinking is an intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication as a guide to belief and action. In short, it is thinking, which is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective (Paul and Elder, 2006). If inference has to be drawn, it would amount to higher order thinking skills stated in the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001). Today, ICT has made information easily accessible, but the difficulty lies in acquiring thinking capabilities to deal with such information. Critical thinking thus, needs to be developed so that learners can explore, criticize, reason inductively-deductively and infer conclusions. However, a teacher’s dilemma lies in incorporating these abstract intellectual processes in instructional strategies. To integrate critical thinking in class the questions that seek to be addressed are:
What should teachers teach?
Which methodology should teachers adopt?
This paper advocates that cognitive thinking skills of learners can be developed if teachers in the classroom use technology-integrated collaborative methodology guided by a constructivist framework.
The Constructivist Framework
Constructivism is a theory of learning, which posits that students learn by actively constructing their own knowledge (von Glasersfeld, 1996; Fosnot 1996; Duffy and Cunningham 1996). According to von Glasersfeld (1995), concepts cannot be simply transferred from teachers to students – they have to be conceived. Knowledge is not regarded as a commodity which can be transferred from an expert to a learner; rather it should be regarded as a construct pieced together through an active process of involvement and interaction with the environment. Learners bring to class differential life experiences, and learning therefore needs to be looked through students’ perspective where they can collaboratively contribute towards a learning goal.
Collaborative Learning implies working in a group of two or more to achieve a common goal, while respecting each individual’s contribution to the whole (McInnerey and Robert, 2004). The strength of collaborative learning lies in the fact that active exchange of ideas within small group gives students opportunity to engage in discussion, taking responsibility for their own learning, building new understanding by challenging other’s ideas and defending their own. Combination of different perspectives, talent and ideas creates a new product, which could be quite different from what each learner could have created on his/her own. Collaborative learning thus embodies values of reflection, negotiation, human management, decision-making and problem-solving skills, which leads to learner autonomy. Internet being more accessible to learners today, integrating technology is seen to prove effective for knowledge construction.
Use of Technology
Review of literature suggests that technology itself, does not lead to development of thinking skills. The success of the activity depends on how technology is used by the teacher. Jonassen et al (1998) state that computer-mediated collaborative learning is seen as a support and resource for students by which thinking skill is taught, applied and learnt. Computer as a tutor and the computer as a tool together are seen to support reasoning skills, enquiry skills, creative thinking and evaluation skills. In addition, use of technology helps in self-paced instruction.
Keeping the above assumptions in mind, a study was planned and executed to develop critical thinking skills of IV semester BCA students at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India.
The study was an E-Project devised on the principles of Business Communication. At first, students were asked to conceptualize, identify, and launch a product in the virtual market. Two, they had to make assumptions regarding the clients of the product. Three, they had to prepare a marketing strategy which included a message for their clients, the channels which they would use to advertise their products and the code or the language they would use to do it. Four, they had to anticipate barriers likely to be encountered at all levels and five, find solutions to them. Lastly they had to obtain feedback on the product launched and resolve issues if any.
The E-Project was of 15 weeks duration comprising 120 students who had a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic background. These students were divided into groups of six each.
Two contact hours were allotted per week for it. On the first day the task was explained followed by revising Principles of Communication that they had learned in Semester I. For the next two weeks inputs of 1 hour each, using case studies were imparted to students on negotiation and assertive skills, sms-etiquettes and inter-cultural communication. The next hour was reserved for clarifying their doubts as brainstorming had started to identify the product. All stages of the project were time bound.
- All groups had to identify the product within 2 weeks,
- Each activity was monitored and questioned at every stage,
- All instructions were given via emails, blogs every 10 days,
- All the students had the freedom to email anytime for clarifying doubts.
- Use of technology meant using online learning tools. Based on the objectives of the project and visualizing its applicability, the following online tools were used:
Discussion Board- on which discussable questions, audio-video files, case studies could be posted as well as speeches uploaded. Students learned how to participate in an online discussion; Drop box assignments made assignments meaningful, relevant and frequent; Chat Rooms helped in ‘live’ interaction and Emails were used for giving instructions. Blogs highly motivated students. For students who otherwise might not become participants in classrooms, it provided an effective platform for collaboration and discussion.
Apart from the above, Socratic Questioning was used which developed higher order thinking skills in students. Socratic Method is basically asking a series of questions on a central issue or topic to engage others in thoughtful discussion. It is an effective way to explore ideas in depth and promotes independent thinking, giving students ownership of what they are learning. Questions were asked that sought clarifications, assumptions, reasons, evidences, justification of claims, implications, consequences, viewpoints and perspectives about their own thinking process.
The groups identified products like shampoos, soaps, mobile phones, television sets, two/four wheel vehicles, laptops etc. An example of a ‘soap’, which a group launched, is cited here. They named it ‘Blossom’. They assumed that 38% of the rural population and 62 % of the urban population would use it; characteristics of a cleansing agent, with good biodegradability and mild antiseptic were attributed to it and they priced it at Rs. 20. To market the product they prepared a jingle, which is as follows:
Experience a Blossom Bath
To advertise their product they used TV, handouts, visuals and radio. The banners they prepared had the photograph of the soap with the jingle written on it. Barriers they visualized were brand power - 30% because many established brands were already in the market, fierce nature of competition - 10%, competition with the MNCs- 30%, faith in customers – 25% and government policy - 05%. Feedback on the product was sought through questionnaires, house to house survey and interviewing customers.
Project evaluation comprised 100 marks, constituting 3 credits. All students individually submitted the written project that included all stages they had undertaken to complete it. Also, all students in individual groups made an oral presentation in front of the entire class, which was evaluated by two external teachers and the teacher concerned. Questions were asked to each and every member of the group which were related to the contribution made by each student by citing examples, making connections between related concepts, stating important aspects they had learned, challenging moments of the project, and how they resolved certain complex issues.
The learning outcomes that emerged were that students were engaged in active inquiry leading to development of higher level thinking skills. As students dug into complex and challenging problems, addressing real life concerns, it assisted cognitive growth, developed reflective, negotiating, team and value skills, making learning relevant while establishing connections with life outside of the classroom.
The narrow notion of ELT as developing LSRW needs to be redefined. Today, English is increasingly perceived as an international language. Looking at the context in which learners require English today, language teachers need to become interdisciplinary instructors. Teachers should act as critical agents of change in society in which English classrooms can become sites for enhancing life skills.
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Aarati Mujumdar taught language and literature at M.S.University, Baroda and is presently teaching at Modern College of Business and Science, Muscat. She has co-authored books on Business Communication and Foundation English and presented numerous papers nationally and internationally.