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Implicit and explicit critical thinking activities

One of the questions teachers often ask is, ‘Where and when in a lesson it is appropriate to include critical thinking activities?’ The problem with this question is that it seems to imply that critical thinking is a separate, discrete activity, a kind of esoteric add-on. In fact, as John Hughes and I argue in Critical Thinking in ELT, critical thinking is a mindset integral to all learning, a way of approaching the object of study with a questioning mind. That being so, the answer to the question is that critical thinking activities may appear anywhere and should appear as often as there is value to be gained – be that interest value or learning value – by reflecting on a subject more deeply.

In practice, it means including both implicit and explicit critical thinking activities in our lessons. Implicit activities are those questions or directions embedded in an exercise and not flagged specifically as ‘critical thinking’. Explicit activities, on the other hand, often comprise more than one exercise and openly direct students to reflect more deeply and systematically on the aims and effectiveness of a piece of discourse.

Implicit critical thinking activities have been around a lot longer than explicit ones, which only started to appear around 20 years ago. We are probably most familiar with them in grammar teaching. For example, when a teacher stimulates reflection on language use in an error feedback session: ‘Someone said: “She did a good work.” Why can’t we say that?’. In fact, any use of an inductive approach to teaching grammar can be deemed an implicit critical thinking activity. For example, picking out the sentence She’s just being selfish from a text and asking learners the difference in meaning between it and She’s just selfish. Encouraging learners to form their own hypotheses about how language works is a core critical thinking skill and has long been seen as necessary for assimilating language properly.

An implicit activity could be something as simple as adding the words ‘why’ or ‘give reasons’ to a rubric. For example, in an opening to a lesson under a photo of two people being served a four-course meal on a remote beach, we find the discussion question ‘Is this a luxury you would buy, if money were not an issue?’ (LIFE Upper Intermediate). To stimulate learners’ deeper interest and engagement we might add: ‘Why / Why not?’ or ‘What luxuries would you buy or would you never buy? Make a list. Then compare with your partner.’

We can also use implicit critical thinking activities in productive tasks. Imagine your B1 level students have been learning should for advice in the context of common health complaints and are going to act out a patient-doctor role play. Their basic instructions are: ‘Explain your problem to the doctor and then listen to their advice.’ To increase their engagement in the task and produce more authentic output, the rubric contains this critical thinking element, asking them to reflect on the conversation they are about to have: ‘Think about how you are feeling (worried, embarrassed etc.). Think also about the result you want from this conversation.’.

Explicit critical thinking tasks most typically appear in receptive skills lessons where having tested basic comprehension of a text, students are then asked to evaluate it by examining what the real purpose of the text is, whether the author has been successful in this aim and if so, how, and if not, why not. Typically, an explicit task will home in on a specific aspect of argumentation or of language use and guide the student in their analysis. An example of this would be examining a talk for what was not said, rather than only looking at the arguments presented, as in the extract below taken from Keynote Intermediate about the famous marshmallow experiment.


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