Monday, 3 October 2016

The relationship between critical thinking and 2nd language learning

I was sent a research paper on making reasoning skills visible this week. Newcastle University researchers looked at the different ways such skills could be developed by those studying English as a second language, and the role technology can play.

In this post, we’ll now refer to these students as L2.

Some of the key focuses were on:
  • how highly cognitive and collaborative tasks, written in English, can be very useful if planned carefully.
  • the use of a technology enhanced space and whether it can help.
  • whether Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Environments help internalise new language knowledge.
  • software Digital Mysteries being used by L2 students to monitor communication, higher level thinking and reasoning skills.
The full paper is freely available to read (just click here) but here’s a summary.

Some general highlights:

Previous research (Paul and Elder 2012) suggests critical thinking has three elements: analysing, evaluating and improving thinking. They believe the quality of thinking depends on the ability to reason. Therefore, learning to reason is a core skill.

The very nature of what L2 students are learning means they need to think critically. This is arguably (Robinson 2005) because any task which needs two or more steps to complete, refers to events in the past OR demands reasoning, are more complex (cognitively) than those with a single step or those which refer to events in the ‘here and now’. Something such as joining in a group discussion (in English) requires higher thinking skills.

Using certain technology to assist groups of L2 learners can be helpful, as long as it’s ‘whereby interactions are not only between learners and the (software/hardware) but also between learners themselves’.

The use of Digital Mysteries “not only triggers useful task-related discussions, but also makes the students’ thinking more visible thus more accessible to an external observer such as another student or a teacher”.

Some details on the study...

Participants: Nine postgraduates (ages 21-29) on an Applied Linguistics and TESOL Masters programme.

Before the study: They’d already been introduced to Digital Mysteries as part of a module on Thinking Skills.

Set up: They were randomly divided into three groups.

Mystery (problem solving activity) used: Shopping and Land Use Change. It explores recent changes in urban land use and shopping patterns - all through the eyes of a single mother, Gail. (If you’d like us to transform that task into a FREE Thinking Kit activity, please email with the subject ‘Land Use’.)

One of the main things explored was the presence of reasoning skills and thinking-in-action.

Some highlights from the results and conclusions:
  • Digital, resizable slips (picture cards) encourage joint reading and facilitated thinking.
  • Complex, higher level thinking was shown by L2 students being asked to create and name different categories for the cards, as more than one step was needed to complete. Not only did they have to understand the content, they then had to compare and contrast it to others.
  • “Parallel, as well as collaborative, thinking was observed, moving between individual thinking, thinking together, and mediating each other’s thinking.”
  • Differently shaped arrow sticky tapes did two things: forced students to decide what  connection certain cards had (cause, effect or general), which then externalised students’ interpretations too - making their thinking visible and ready for evaluation.
  • A particular process of thinking skills can be introduced, through the way a task is set up, e.g. Separating comprehension from grouping eases mental workload.
  • Computer Supported Collaborative Learning allows for ‘face to face communication as it specifically encourages talk and the promotion of thinking skills’.
  • Software such as Digital Mysteries ‘can play a significant role in this form of training’.
To round off our blog post, we wanted to share one of the closing lines of the paper:

“We believe that the integration of the teaching of critical thinking skills and more specifically reasoning skills into the L2 classroom can be supported through new technologies. Rather than something that is done to students… (it) should be viewed as part of a broader ecology...where the affordances of the environment as a whole, including peers, teacher and technology come together.”

Skip to section 6 of the paper for the full conclusion.

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