As teachers, we’ve all experienced lessons that fell flat. The students were uninspired or disengaged, and wore blank, expressionless faces. While these moments can feel disappointing and discouraging, they help us learn and improve by honing our instructional choices.
These experiences have provoked me to think differently about my lessons—what could I do differently? Where was I going wrong? I realized that part of the reason my students seemed uninspired in these moments was likely because I was not asking them to do much. They were not thinking critically, making cultural comparisons, or problem-solving. This realization led me to boost the levels of rigor and critical thinking in my world language classes.
5 Ways to Increase Students’ Critical Thinking
1. Evaluate the questions you’re asking: Are your questions crafted to produce detailed, in-depth responses, or do they lead to one-word answers? Do they allow students to draw on their personal experiences or offer their opinions? Do they inspire students to passionately debate, or to engage in an exchange with a peer? Are students answering these questions enthusiastically? Let’s look at an example of a flat question versus a dynamic one.
“Why is global warming a serious issue?” is an important question, but it doesn’t require students to offer details about their thoughts or opinions on the matter, and it is unlikely to result in an enthusiastic response. Changing it to, “How could the effects of global warming impact or change your future life, and how does this make you feel?” directly solicits students’ perspectives. This question gets students thinking about their own lives, which can heighten their engagement.
2. Place culture at the core of your lessons and units: Language teachers are not solely responsible for teaching a language—we should also be exposing our students to the culture(s) associated with the target language. Our students often make deeper connections with cultural aspects of the language rather than with the linguistic ones. Embrace this!
If a Spanish teacher, for example, is teaching a unit about foods, they can focus on the Mediterranean diet in Spain and make a connection to healthy lifestyle practices. If they’re teaching a unit about the environment, they might focus on why Costa Rica is a leader in sustainability and ecotourism. Weaving cultural points into essential questions adds another layer of rigor to our units of study.
Try requiring that students make cultural comparisons between their native culture(s) and the target one. This gives them the opportunity to think critically about their own cultures and allows them to recognize that not every culture is the same, guiding them to be more culturally competent global citizens.
3. Plan lessons and design activities with Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy: Some powerful verbs featured in Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy—such as recall, interpret, infer, execute, differentiate, critique, and produce—draw attention to the skills we want to develop in our students.
For example, we want our students to interpret authentic resources such as infographics or podcasts. We want them to infer the meaning behind the titles of news articles or short stories. We want them to differentiate between cultural practices in the target language country and the United States. We want them to critique statements or texts that we present to them, and we want them to produce well-executed pieces of writing or oral presentations.
Let these verbs guide your methods and lesson planning. Engaging in the acts of recalling, interpreting, inferring, executing, differentiating, critiquing and producing will aid your students in accomplishing more rigorous tasks.
4. Incorporate authentic resources: There’s no better way to expose students to culture and higher-order thinking than with authentic resources—real-life materials from the target country, including infographics, articles, songs, films, podcasts, commercials, written ads, and so on.
Authentic resources need not be reserved for higher-level classes—they can be used at any level. Adapt the task—not the resource—for the appropriate level. Level one students often need an authentic resource to pique their interest in the language and culture. For example, when teaching novice students about foods and eating habits in the target country, incorporate an authentic menu for them to examine and analyze. Create a basic task like a graphic organizer for them to complete with the menu. They don’t need to understand every word in order to complete the task. Intermediate level students can likely interpret an authentic resource with little to no assistance.
Using authentic resources can entice students to continue on their language learning journey, igniting their curiosity. Such resources also present an increased level of rigor and challenge. Students are required to evaluate and analyze an authentic cultural product when evaluating these resources.
5. Give students independence: While it’s sometimes tempting to lecture students and control the entirety of the class period, releasing some control can be empowering. Let students think independently and design some of their own tasks. Require them to problem-solve. Give them choices. Let them own their learning and take an active role in it. Giving students time to work independently fosters a rigorous environment in which students are able to think critically without constant assistance.
Rather than providing questions immediately after reading an article with your students, allow them to come up with the questions. Identify key vocabulary by asking students which words they associate with the given topic instead of providing a list. And instead of leading every class discussion, assign students different jobs in group discussions, or allow them to take turns facilitating a whole-class discussion. When students are given a chance to lead, they generally rise to the occasion, which can lead to deeper learning.