Greetings and welcome to Critically Minded. Critically Minded Podcast is a thirteen-episode podcast series for teaching basic critical thinking skills. This blog is not only an access point for the podcast; it’s also an entire semester long course design. Interested teachers may access the free resources in the Pages column to the right (Teacher Resources). To learn more about the the four-step course design, read on.
The approach that I have developed consists of four-steps that first create declarative knowledge of critical thinking skills deliver through explicit instruction via Critically Minded Podcast.
That knowledge is then applied in triad or pair work during five in-class text reconstruction exercise sessions (see Sequiturs I-IV and Video-Based activity V). These text reconstruction exercises (TREs) are distinguised from conventional text reconstruction exercises in that they focus learners’ attention on textual features associated with argument (premise indicators and conclusion indicators).
The five sessions run in lockstep with the podcast episodes. In short, Sequitur sessions I and II are done after podcast Episode II and III, as these relate to simple premises and conclusions. Sequitur session III is done after Episodes IV and V as these cover major and minor premises. Session IV is done after Episodes VI and VII which cover hypothetical premises. Lastly, Session V (the video-based exercise) is done after Episodes VIII and IX, which cover declarative, normative, crypto-normative and prescriptive issues.
It is important, for pedagogical reasons, that the Sequiturs be done in triads or pairs, in order to exploit all the advantages of social constructivist learning theory. Before beginning each exercise, learners read the pre-exercise reading passages, confirm their comprehension and generally discuss the content in order to negotiate a shared understanding. They then close the window displaying the reading passages and begin the exercises.
Each of these sessions should end in a final task in which learners engage in verbal report of what they have noticed. For practical reasons involving the need for individual accountability during assessment, each student is tasked with completing a online form. They are encouraged to work together in their triads or pairs in completing these. Currently, I am using Google Forms for this, having created one template form and then recreated that form, one for each student. More details about this form can be found in the Resources page.
Critical thinking involves a skillset, which the Sequitur are designed to help develop, but it also involves values and the desire to think critically in the first place. These are commonly called critical dispositions. Critical thinking is largely a social act, and so in order to engage in critical thinking, one must not only possess knowledge of the argument indicators (AIs) used to apply critical thinking skills, but also the language of dialectical discourse.
For that reason, in addition to the Sequitur TREs, there are also seven sets of exercises called Clôze Lines. These cover such functions as agreeing and disagreeing, creating focus and asking for clarification. (A complete list of these is available in the Pages column in the page titled Dialectical Discourse Items pdf.s) Unlike the text-based Sequiturs, these all involve audio. Learners listen to three audio tracks and complete three corresponding clôze exerises. They then are tasked to engage in verbal report using the same Google Form mentioned earlier. It should be noted that the podcasts do not provide instruction for these dialectical discourse items (DDIs) and these should be covered by the teacher in class. Again, the pdf.s available in the Pages column to the right can be a valuable asset and, these should be distributed to students before the assignment of each corresponding Clôze Line. (It is possible that future episodes covering the DDIs may be produced, but this is at least a year off.)
For most teachers it is not practical to do these exercises in class, because each triad would be listening to different segments of the audio and this tends to result in counter-productive cacophony. Doing these in class, in addition to the Sequiturs, would also require twelve class sessions and in a single semester course this is unadvisable. For that reason, the Clôze Lines are assigned as homework.
However, in the case of a year long course, the pacing of the entire course design could be slowed down to half-speed and the Clôze Lines could be done in class. The In-Class Video Activity which invloves pair work and so must be done in class was also subject to the problem of noise. In order to solve the problem, I provided a pair of 3.5 mm earphone jack splitters for each pair or triad. By plugging one splitter into second splitter, and then plugging that second into the audio source (the computer) , three students (triad) can listen to one audio source. Since each triad needs two splitters a class of, say, 27 students would need ((27÷3) × 2) = 18. Obviously, working in pairs increases the number of splitters needed: ((27÷2) = 13.5, meaning 14 splitters would be needed for 12 pairs and one triad.
In this way, the underpinnings are laid upon which later procedural knowledge can be constructed.
Each TRE session then leads into the a related task completed via online asynchronous communication. This involves the discussion of topics introduced in whatever textbook is being used. It goes without saying that some textbooks will be more suited to this purpose than others. Discussion questions from the textbook may be posted in the the Groups as a Topic. Currently, I am using Google Groups to facilitate discourse through participation in discussion threads. Learners are expected to use the AIs learned from the podcast and Sequitur sessions, as well the DDIs learned from in-class instruction and Clôze Line work, as they discuss the topics together, not only responding to the teachers’ initial post, but also to other learners’ posts. As students are working at their own pace, many of the problems caused by the raising of affective filters is avoided and an emergent bank of meaningful target language use based in personal experience in a social context is built up. Student may later lean on this previous experience during in-class group speaking tests.
In-class group speaking tests are done three times during the term, during the late-beginning, the middle and the late end of the 15-week period, typically in the fifth, ninth and fourteenth class meeting. Students are expected to be prepared to discuss predetermined discussion questions (which they should have discussed earlier in the on-line discussion) from up to three different units. The unit that they discuss is selected randomly by dice-roll or some other means. Triads (or two pairs) are assessed at a time. In addition to whatever criteria the teacher sets, students are also assessed in terms of target language item use. As there are relatively few items in the first speaking test, assessment is not terribly taxing. However, as the number of AIs and DDIs that students are expected to use increases, assessment becomes increasingly challenging.
In order to make assessment tenable, I have created a spreadsheet that can be downloaded and used, either digitally or in paper form. This spreadsheet also includes scoring for Sequitur and Clôze Line comments and any other related tasks that students do during the 14 weeks, leaving the fifteenth week free for teachers to clean up lose ends and perform any other required testing. In an integrated skills English course, that might take the form of a group writing project.
The group writing project, like much of the other work should be done online by using online documents. Currently, I am using Google Docs for this purpose. Although other apps, like Etherpad, available for this purpose are available, I find them to be lacking for a variety of reasons. It is up to the teacher, but as long as individual participation in the writing of the document can be attributed or confirmed, triads (or pairs) can be grouped into larger project work groups, six, nine, 12 or more, at the teachers’ discretions.
As a closing remark, I should add that I am aware of some of the issues involving the use of Google apps and am working to become free of their use. As the reader may have noticed, however, this course design is somewhat demanding and in various ways and I have yet to find a another means of meeting all of these needs. Although, these resources have reached a point where they can be said to be 100% working and viable, this is still a work in progress and the next year, 2015, is sure to bring more developments.