Objections to Critical Thinking

I hadn’t intended to write about critical thinking (CT) this week: I had prepared drafts on other topics. In preparing materials for an MA module, I came across an article by Atkinson[1] outlining four major objections to CT. These objections provoked me to seek your thoughts on CT and teaching EAP. Below, I briefly outline Atkinson’s four main objections to CT:

1)      CT is a tacit, common sense, social practice rather than a ‘rational, transparent, and – especially – teachable set of behaviours’ (72) which very few try to define (74). CT lacks clarity and definition and because it is a tacit social practice it is ‘beyond the capability of most teachers to teach [it] in more than an anecdotal and hit-or-miss way’ (77).

2)      CT is ‘exclusive and reductive’ (77) and part of a ‘conservative upper-class model’ (77) of education which marginalises other approaches to thinking especially ones that may ‘lead to more desirable social consequences in the long run’ (72). The alternative to CT can be found in feminist connected knowing entailing a sympathetic, non-antagonistic attitude to understanding others’ perspectives.

3)      CT is not universal and ‘many cultures endorse modes of thought and education that almost diametrically oppose it’ (72) rendering CT challenging for ‘nonnative thinkers’ (79). Nonnative thinkers may come from cultural systems with: ‘opposing notions of relations between the individual and social system’ (79); ’contrasting norms of self-expression across cultures’ (idem), and ‘divergent perspectives on the use of language as a means of learning’ (idem).

4)      CT shows no empirical evidence of being transferrable ‘beyond narrow contexts of instruction’ (72) begging the question of why we teach CT in the first place.

Atkinson’s aim is to ask practitioners ‘to reflect carefully and critically on the notion of critical thinking’ (89). Yet, who would want to teach CT if it is alien to and beyond all but a minority of (affluent) Anglo-Saxon males? Certainly, in EAP contexts, if we can’t define CT, can’t teach it and can’t guarantee transferability from the EAP classroom to elsewhere it would suggest that we are wasting our time. Perhaps he is right and I’d be interested to read your thoughts on this. Below are just two of my initial thoughts on Atkinson’s arguments.

My first objection is to question the gendered nature of CT. The validity and credibility of the research Atkinson marshals to support alternative ways of thinking (Belenky et al. 1986) has been severely undermined, especially by feminists:

[The authors] told their subjects ahead of time that the interviews in which they were participating were for the purpose of studying their special “women’s ways of knowing”, making it impossible to be sure that their responses weren’t biased by suggestion.

Haack, 1998:125.

Not only have the methods and procedures been questioned leading to strong doubts as to veracity of the results but, perhaps, more importantly the image of women projected as a result of this research has been severely attacked, e.g.:

 The authors make a strong case for the contention that some women have been epistemologically crippled, but they offer no foundation for any claim that the previously ignored ‘ways of knowing’ bestow power on women.

Koertge and Patai, 2003:167.

Atkinson argues that it is ‘beyond the capability of most teachers to teach [CT] in more than an anecdotal and hit-or-miss way’. How does this statement reflect your own attempts to teach CT? I can only draw on my own experience of teaching to suggest that Atkinson might be missing the point. The central question is less about whether CT is ‘teachable’ and more about whether criticality can be nurtured and developed in the classroom. This might well be the case, as I have done with foundation EAP students, of explicitly introducing notions and models of argument and informal logic into the classroom – skills and techniques if you like. However, whilst CT entails skills and techniques, I have found that I have dedicated more time for dialogue about why CT is important and focusing much more on the dispositional and attitudinal aspects of CT. CT is not simply a set of skills but a disposition to seek to be moved to act by, inter alia, reason, warrant, justification, and evidence. Whilst not all students display an enthusiasm for this, many do. Discussions centring on epistemology, truth, validity and argument can, and do, generate passionate, informed and stimulating debate especially when students initiate problems, examples or case studies that are of interest to them. What I hope to achieve with these students is less about the transferability of skills or techniques (although this would undoubtedly be useful) but more about encouraging a disposition that entails a questioning and critical approach to education. How effective I am in this is questionable but I do have some optimism that this approach to CT will resonate with at least some students later on.

I have many other objections to Atkinson’s polemic on CT, especially with the notion of ‘nonnative thinker’. I also find the notion that ‘cultures’ endorse diametrically opposed systems of thinking and education worrying. This seems to me an important political rather than cultural question.

I would welcome your views on CT, how you teach it (if you do), whether you agree with Atkinson (or not), what challenges or queries you have with CT, whether you avoid CT, how you define it… anything CT related is very welcome!


[1] Atkinson, D. (1997) ‘A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL’, TESOL Quarterly 31, 1: 71-94.


Curriculum as knowledge practice

This week, we have a guest blogger: Gina Roach. Gina is an EAP colleague who teaches at our Ningbo campus in China. Gina is also one of Julie King’s PhD students and she is investigating the assessment of critical thinking at the Masters level across four Social Science disciplines.

I’d like to contribute here, through a very short analysis,  an understanding of EGAP and ESAP curricular shift  as not simply a matter of movement  along a continuum ‘towards ESAP’ but one requiring a shift to a completely different paradigm.


A discussion about curriculum inevitably involves a discussion about knowledge. The latter work of Basil Bernstein (2000) offers a valuable theoretical tool for understanding curriculum as knowledge practice. Curriculum is a re-contextualisation practice where knowledges from production fields are selected, rearranged, and transformed to become pedagogic discourse.  A Bernsteinian analysis involves examining how strongly or weakly controlled and bounded variables are between and within problematic categories. This work has been significantly extended and refined by Karl Maton (2000, 2007) in a theory of knowledge called Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) (see www.legitimationcodetheory.com). One relevant extension in LCT is Specialisation: what makes something or someone special? This is made visible through an examination of knowledge relations: epistemic relations (ER) and social relations (SR) which can be relatively strong or relatively weak       (ER±; SR±). Specialisation analysis asks which relation is dominant and aims to make visible the underlying organizing principle or code of Specialisation in a practice.  There are four Specialisation codes:

  • knowledge codes – refer to situations where possession of specialised knowledge and its procedures are more emphasised as the measure of achievement (ER+,SR-)
  • knower codes – refer to situations where dispositions or attributes of actors are emphasised as the basis of achievement (ER-,SR+)
  • elite codes – refer to situations where both specialised knowledge and dispositions are emphasised (ER+,SR+)
  • relativist codes – refer to situations where neither are strongly controlled (ER-,SR-) 

Using these concepts I examine what relations are emphasised in EGAP and ESAP curricula, their underlying codes and what this might mean.


EGAP relatively weakly controls and bounds what is selected, re-arranged and paced in a curriculum.  For example, Business Studies students might build FIELD about Acid Rain, English as a T-Rex, and Economic Globalisation.  Skills, the mechanics of doing something vacuous of content are far more significantly emphasised over content andmarking rubrics tend to value items like grammar, fluency, and accuracy.   Thus, there is an emphasis on actors being a native speaker of English; social relations to knowledge are emphasized (SR+) over epistemic relations (ER-), indicating a knower code curriculum (ER-,SR+).

ESAP places stronger control and boundaries around what is considered legitimate text and discourse for selection, re-arrangement, and pacing. Business Students may build FIELD in Herzberg and Maslow’s theories of motivation and hierarchy of needs, Entrepreneurship, and Social Capital.  Marking rubrics tend to more equally value content, the mechanics of English like grammar, and the mechanics of writing like task-fulfillment. There is relatively stronger emphasis on being a native speaker of a discipline in English (c.f McPeck[1], 1994). Thus, more emphasis is on epistemic over social relations to knowledge (ER+,SR-) indicating a knowledge code (ER+,SR-) curriculum. 


I have reservations about EGAP and ESAP being placed on a single continuum as popularly conceived in our field and suggest different continua for different organizing principles: a towards  being-a-discipline-speaker in English continuum and a towards being-a-native-speaker of English continuum.  In LCT studies, continua are often intersected to create Cartesian planes where finer analyses are made.  The LCT Specialisation plane in the left-hand box of the table below intersects SR and ER continua of varying strengths, where the four Specialisation codes – knowledge, knower, elite and relativist – emerge from the quadrants.  Similarly, being-a-discipline-speaker in English (DS) and being-a-native-speaker of English (NS) continua can be intersected as seen in the right hand box. EGAP and ESAP can now be seen in terms of their relations to each other and their codes: EGAP as a knower code curriculum and ESAP as a knowledge code curriculum. A shift requires movement to a different quadrant; a different code of practice.

Specialisation Codes (Maton, 2007; 97)



For me, this is a useful explanation of why it is often difficult to communicate amongst ourselves as EAP practitioners when we discuss curriculum: often we are speaking different codes and misunderstandings occur due to our code clash. A change in selection in curriculum may involve an entire code shiftwhich has repercussions for participants involved. Knower code curriculum writers may be required to create a knowledge code curriculum with validation rubrics, or knower code teachers may need to operationalise a knowledge code curriculum.  A popular maxim is ‘but we are not content teachers!’ Code clashes often exist between a curriculum and its validation rubrics; this occurs more frequently than we like to admit.  Proper training in ESAP curriculum writing, as a knowledge practice, is an urgent need in our field which I hope the new MA EAP at Nottingham can address.


Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity: Theory, Research, Critique. NY: Rowman   & Littlefield.      

Maton, K. (2000). Languages of Legitimation: The structuring signififance for intellectual fields of strategic knowledge claims. British Journal of Sociology of Education 21(2), 147-167.

Maton K. (2007) Knowledge-knower structures in intellectual and educational fields, in Christie, F. & Martin, J. (Eds.) Language, Knowledge and Pedagogy: Functional linguistic and sociological perspectives. London, Continuum, 87-108

McPeck, G. (1994). Critical Thinking and the ‘Trivial Pursuit’ Theory of Knowledge. In Walters, K. (Ed) Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking, 101-118.  Albany: SUNY Press

[1] John McPeck used the term native speaker of a subject-domain to refer to the need for students to have a deep and wide knowledge-base of a discipline before any ‘critical thought’ in it is possible.

How to become a usefully ignorant EAP teacher?

Sometimes I think I’ve never been more confused about what I should be saying and doing in my EAP classroom.

I, like many others, was initially trained as an English language teacher in the CELTA/DELTA communicative era where ‘good’ teacher talk meant reducing its quantity.  I don’t think I ever really understood why this was necessarily a good thing – just that having more student talking time would apparently give them more opportunities to communicate and that this increased communication would somehow facilitate learning.  In the low-stakes ELT contexts I subsequently taught in, this approach seemed to work well enough and I enjoyed the task of creating student-centred activities where I would stand as the ‘guide on the side’ (McWilliam, 2007) facilitating and monitoring whatever my planning led to in the classroom.

My transition to EAP teaching however, led to some rather unexpected consequences for my ingrained adherence to reducing TTT.  Feedback from my Insessional students was that I didn’t ‘talk enough’ and other students requesting that instead of making them go through a laborious sequence of  Columbo-like clues to discover the answer for themselves, it would be far better if I just told them the answer in the first place and saved everyone’s time and energy.  On a Presessional course, where time is so limited, the stakes are so high, and there is so much pressure to get through all the materials, this request did not seem wholly unreasonable.  Moreover, having experienced and seen so many other teachers go through so many hoops to elicit an answer that they eventually answered themselves, I started to question what I was doing and why.

I think most researchers and practitioners now agree that the issue is more about quality rather than quantity, and that, in any case, attempts to reduce TTT have largely failed (Walsh, 2002; Wilson, 2007).   Other attempts to make classroom interaction more representative of ‘authentic’ communication outside the classroom also seem to have been quashed by claims that the classroom is as valid a context of communication as any other institutional discourse setting, and so has its own norms of communication related to language use and pedagogical goals and purposes.

Part of me thinks ‘great’ and yet another part of me thinks that I no longer know what those norms are.  I’ve bought into sociocultural pedagogic theory and concepts of dialogic and collaborative learning, and I like the idea of using the EAP context as a sort of initiation into academic communities of practice and development of relevant competences.  I also understand the core principles of social learning are action, communication, reflection and negotiation (Illeris, 2002) and that my classroom needs to foster an atmosphere that allows for these things to happen.

But…going back to Walsh (2002), I have no idea as to what I do and say in my EAP context that would be deemed either ‘constructive’ or ‘obstructive’ to these particular goals.  Moreover, as I read about the changing nature of tertiary education and the need for a rethink around effective teaching towards a more experimental culture of learning to better prepare students for a constantly developing, digitally enhanced working context (Bauman, 2004), I have less confidence about what my teaching practice should be.  If knowledge is now somehow backgrounded in favour of the development of transferable skills, then what can I usefully do with my students?

McWilliam (2008) talks about a shift from the ‘guide from the side’ to the ‘meddler in the middle’, where we use our increasing relative ignorance to create space for creation, innovation, and pedagogical possibilities.  Education thus becomes less about transmission of knowledge from the ‘sage on the stage’ to teachers developing their own  disposition to be ‘usefully ignorant’ (McWilliam, 2008) in the classroom and to developing  the learning dispositions among students that would be appropriate in those future contexts.  This then leads to teaching contexts where knowledge transmission is replaced by a form of value creation shifting students from consumers of education to users and ultimately producers (Hearn, 2005).  As McWilliam states (2007:6):

‘If we consider pedagogical exchange as a form of value exchange and value creation, then what Hearn opens up are new possibilities for thinking about a pedagogy that has more promise from creative capacity building…Rather than teachers delivering an information product to be ‘consumed’ and fed back by the student, co-creating value would see the teacher and student mutually involved in assembling and dissembling cultural products…The teacher is in there experimenting and learning from the instructive complications of her errors alongside  her students.’

And so back to my confusion.  If we understand that pedagogical exchange is achieved through value co-construction and co-creation of meaning, then surely the context in which that occurs is equally co-constructed by the participants.  In which case, ultimately the ‘norms’ of behaviour within those contexts can only be decided by those participants and their particular goals, and not by some undefined party external to that interaction.  And where is the evidence that knowledge transmission is no longer such a good thing and that the knowledge that we have acquired over the years is now inappropriate and out of date?


Bauman, Z. (2004) Liquid Sociality. In N. Gane (Ed.) The Future of Social Theory. Continuum: London pp17-46.

Hearn, G. (2005) The Shift to Value Ecology Thinking and its Relevance to the Creative Industries. Paper presented at the QUT Brisbane Conference: Open Content Licensing: Cultivating the Creative Commons.

Illeris, K. (2002). The three dimensions of learning. Roskilde, Denmark: Roskilde University Press/Leicester, UK: NIACE.

McWilliam, E. (2008)  Unlearning how to teach. Innovations in Education and Teaching. Vol 45 (3) pp263-269..

Walsh, S. (2002) Construction or obstruction: teacher talk and learner involvement in the EFL classroom.  Language Teaching Research Vol 6 (1) pp3-23.

Wilson, K. (2007) Facilitating talk in EAP reading classes. ELT Journal Vol 64 (4) pp366-374.