Critical Thinking – The Key Competence for the Z Generation

Critical Thinking

By Maja-Barbara Kokot

The Z generation, born in the period from 1995 to 2010, succeeding the Millennials, is currently within the educational process or has just started to enter the world of work. The Zers are people characterised by multiple reality and mobility, entrepreneurship, and they are always connected but also flooded by an unprecedented amount of information. They are comfortable with the use of social media and the Internet, but this does not mean they are necessarily digitally literate.

Teachers willingly (or not) have to adjust to these rapidly changing and new challenging generations. We have to keep up with the changes in the teaching process not only in the ICT aspect but also in the way our primary role of teaching has changed. Our role is no longer just being the information source and information presenter, but it has also shifted to that of a consultant, guide, and instructor. What needs to be highlighted in our role is teaching the four C’s skills, namely, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical thinking.

Critical thinking is not just a modern term. I believe it should even be officially set higher among the educational priorities. To develop a critical mind means to guide students to the ideals of being:

– inquisitive, 

– well-educated,   

– open to different interpretations,

– flexible,

– honest in evaluation when facing their own mistakes, 

– wise in judgment,

– tolerant…

In the process of critical thinking, the areas of thinking such as deduction, problem-solving, decision making, and creativity are much more intense than in other forms of thinking. Critical thinking means a person’s more efficient problem solving and decision-making as it is based upon solid evidence in contrast to that of an uncritical thinker who relies on other people’s opinions and does not dwell upon what he has been presented. Consequently, the creativity of a critical thinker is at a very high level.

If foreign language students want to be successful within the multi-cultural environment, they not only have to learn the language itself but also acquire the skills of critical thinking. The latter also encompass tolerance towards other people, especially different people, and greatly influence the ability of empathy.

How to develop and encourage critical thinking within English lessons

Similar to language acquisition, critical thinking is not an innate ability, and therefore, needs to be intentionally developed through the educational process.

The common method of language teaching, the so-called “Three P” approach (Presentation, Practice, Production), does no longer suffice (Vdovina and Cardozo Gaibisso, 2013). Traditionally, the aim of the Presentation stage is to introduce new content, which students practice in the second stage and finally use it in a new context in the last stage. This kind of teacher-student knowledge transfer does not necessarily involve active learning. If we want to achieve our students to develop into critical thinkers, we need to engage them in interactive activities focused on the topics they are interested in.

I encourage critical thinking as I would like my students to be able to organise their thoughts coherently, to express themselves accurately and concisely. I would like to deter them from judging without sufficient evidence and to approach problem-solving from different angles.

This way of teaching demands an active role from students. It does not allow us to accept information passively or even as unquestionable dogmas. By means of interpersonal communication, students learn better, compare their ideas, their attitudes and beliefs, they estimate the relevance of (their) arguments when confronted by others.

There is a variety of activities we can use in classes that develop both language skills and those of critical thinking. Let us closely look at two of them.

Fact or stereotype?

The basic linguistic goal of the activity is topic-related vocabulary acquisition, which serves as a basis for the primary goal of getting to know different nations, cultures and critically telling facts apart from untruths as well as accepting the different others. It is intended for breaking stereotypes we have acquired through the process of primary and secondary socialisation and become aware of the prejudice we might have.

The activity starts by putting on board some typical stereotypes (Ex: racial, national, religious, gender) together with facts;

– “The Italians only eat pasta. “

– “The French are world-famous chefs.”

– “The Slovenes are heavy drinkers.”

– “Homosexual couples can get married in Belgium.”

– “Women are more intelligent than men.”

– “All Muslim women wear burkas.”

Each statement is read out loud, and the students are asked to decide, based on arguments or personal experience, if they are true or false. Some statements can provoke loud reactions from students, or they even emphasise the stereotypes. In this case, I intervene by making them think where their belief comes from and if it is evidence-based. I underline tolerance and speech culture. What I want to achieve is that students do not automatically equal being different from being bad. We need to point out discrimination and develop tolerance to those different from us since it is they who will live in an ever more multi-cultural society. 

Standpoint

The linguistic goal of this activity is to express one’s argument-based opinion. Besides this, the activity includes a common goal of teaching critical thinking – to become aware of the importance of one’s standpoint. The activity itself is a simple role-play, which allows the students to understand how a person’s view influences their behaviour and judgment. They realise how one’s point of view regarding a certain issue decisively impacts the way they think about it, talk about it, and present it to others. We highlight the fact that seeing the issue from other people’s point of view, which is not our own, may present it in a new perspective and help us understand one another better. Therefore, it is essential to listen and try to understand others first and not to dismiss their belief in advance.

Group work represents an ideal way of encouraging students to think in this manner. When they are within the circle of others, they are exposed to the way their peers think. They learn to understand that their manner of thinking is not the only path to problem-solving.

I got the idea for this task from John Hughes (2014). The students are divided into groups of four and given their roles.

Student A:  You are employed by the City Council of Venice, which depends on local taxes and helps to finance the projects for saving Venice.

Student B:  You are a family-run-hotel owner in the centre of Venice. You cannot imagine Venice without tourists.

Student C: You are a local historian trying to preserve ancient buildings and wants to lower the number of tourists.

Student D: You are a local tourist guide organising city tours for more than 1,000 people a day. 

The group is explained that student A is organising a meeting to discuss the problems of the city and to find suitable solutions. At the end of the meeting, students have to guess the roles of the others. Together we summarise their standpoints, establish the differences, and realise why they differ.

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If we can teach our students to become critical thinkers, we empower them with a life-long strategy. They will not accept everything unconditionally, but critically evaluate what they have been presented. They will become neutral, truthful, and well-intentioned and will not fall into the traps of media and environmental manipulations.

  1. HUGHES, J. Critical Thinking in the Language Classroom. 2014. [Online]. https://www.ettoi.pl/PDF_resources/Critical_ThinkingENG.pdf
  2. VDOVINA, E in CARDOZO GAIBISSO, L. Developing Critical Thinking in the English Language Classroom: A Lesson Plan.  Elta Journal. Vol1. No1. 2013. [Online]. http://eltajournal.org.rs/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/VII-Developing-Critical-Thinking-in-the-English-Language-classroom.pdf