“I’m not interested in your opinions, so I don’t want to hear or read your opinions.” This is my introduction to critical thinking for my first-year high school students. I then go on to say that I rather they engage in a higher level of thinking and expression called critical thinking, in which they will employ and develop more fully their English language skills, cognitive skills, as well as general academic skills.
There are many features that define critical thinking (Facione, 2020; Edwards, 2013). To get students started I tell them, in a simple way, that critical thinking involves their ability, first of all, to understand an issue—to consider it from different points of view, in particular the pro and con sides, and then to express clearly, concisely, correctly, and convincingly a number of points on both sides of the issue.
In numerous policy statements for nearly two decades, MEXT has asserted the necessity for Japanese high school students to develop critical thinking skills and has mandated such a focus in the English language curriculum (Mulvey, 2016).
Getting Students Started
How can students get started on this task of developing their critical thinking skills in a way that is manageable, meaningful, and motivating for them? The following is the outline of a concrete, workable scheme I have carried out for a number of years with demonstrated success. It is a plan that other teachers may find suitable and effective at their high schools and possibly for third-year junior high school students.
Students get started on critical thinking in the early weeks of their first year at the high school. After the short explanation of critical thinking, they begin working with lesson topics that are simple, easy to understand, and related to their immediate school and personal lives. Students respond well to this approach.
The first topic is the issue of students being required to clean their classrooms and other parts of the school building, a chore they have done since their elementary school days. No research whatsoever is needed for students to think of pros and cons on this matter. The topic can be briefly presented to the class and then, with an attractive handout that includes a cute graphic, students working in pairs are tasked to list five good and five bad points in complete sentences for this school policy. Together they must communicate, negotiate, and decide on the wording for exactly the same points which they write on their own paper. They always speak solely in English and are not permitted to use dictionaries. For social issues that are presented later in the course, however, I include on the worksheet a list of some key words they may not know but are likely to need.
Of course, they have already been trained and directed from earlier lessons in the course on how to do pair work and are well-practiced at it. Students readily understand the task and can accomplish it within the 50-minute class period. Some typical listings include, for good points: Students experience the benefit of working together. Students take responsibility for doing a task. And for bad points: Students’ uniforms get dirty. Some students play and don’t do much work.
I find that pair work is far more effective and productive than group work. Two students sitting side-by-side or face-to-face instinctively understand that they must focus entirely on each other to accomplish the task. This instructional mode promotes responsible and autonomous practice and achievement of the goals of cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1999). Students readily perceive that they are interdependent with their partner yet, at the same time, they recognize that each of them is individually accountable for the performance of the tasks. The cooperative interaction also assists the development of personal relationships and social skills essential for their mutual success in carrying out the tasks.
When students have finished their lists, I collect the papers and write a short comment on the relevance and the quality of their points and correct the English. The papers are returned to the students the following week.
In the next lesson, continuing with the theme of students’ school life experiences, the second topic for critical thinking is one that is special for Toyama Prefecture students—14-sai no chōsen (“14-year-old challenge”. In the second year of junior high school, students are away from school for one week while engaged in a work experience at various lo-cales or participating in welfare or volunteer activities.) Again, it is a topic experienced by the students and requires just a short introduction. Students work in pairs to list five good points and five bad points for students undertaking this “challenge”.
Moving beyond school life to students’ everyday experience in family life, in another lesson, students take up the issue of whether or not it is important for family members to eat dinner together. I started using this topic some years ago after reading a newspaper article, which I show to the classes, that reported on a survey that found only 26% of families in Japan eat dinner together every day, and only about one-third of households eat dinner together even two or three times a week. Again, the issue is readily understood after a short, clear introduction and the listing of five statements for the importance and five for the non-importance of family members eating dinner together requires no research whatsoever, just good pair work.
Introduction to Academic Writing
Now, at some point into the second term—as students have many other lessons in my course besides those that employ critical thinking—they step up to a higher stage of critical thinking by considering another real experience in their school life.
As about half of the International Course high school students go abroad to study for one year, a very appropriate and important issue for them to consider is the advantages and disadvantages of study abroad for one year for Japanese high school students.
Again, during pair work, they list these points at sentence level on the worksheet prepared for the lesson. They are now very well accustomed to engaging in this kind of task. After completing it, they will explain and give examples of each of their listed points first in speaking with their partner—as always only in English, and following that, they will write out what they have discussed in distinct paragraphs as individual work. With this, however, a problem arises for most students which must first be addressed. As Mulvey (2016) states, “There seems to be no evidence of systemic, cohesive academic writing instruction at the high school level [in Japan], either in the L1 or L2” (pp. 5–6). Thus, “There is a demonstrated need to provide basic instruction in how to organize, and to present one’s arguments or exposition in ways conducive to achieving persuasion and understanding” (p. 7).
It is very important, therefore, that students receive a basic introduction to academic writing. So, before they begin the task of speaking and then writing to explain and give examples of their listed points, they receive a model for the short paragraphs they will write which, in fact, form the body paragraphs of an argumentative essay. The model is presented in the form of a dictation for three points on one side of the issue, for example, explaining and giving examples of the advantages for Japanese high school students to go abroad to study for one year. The dictation can be between 200 to 250 words. I regularly give dictations, so students are well-practiced in the skills and manner of doing this. At the end of the exercise, they are given the text of the dictation to read and carefully check the accuracy of what they wrote. As well as providing a model for paragraph writing, the dictation includes many other benefits—for listening, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, reading, auditory memory, and thinking in English.
Thereafter, students in pairs proceed to explain their points on the other side of the issue, for example, the disadvantages for study abroad for one year, that they had written together. Next, individually they write paragraphs for three points in the style modelled in the dictation text. I select three of the most commonly mentioned points and include them as the topic sentence of each paragraph on the carefully organized writing sheet provided for the students. The most challenging aspect of this writing task is to stay entirely focused on the topic sentence of each paragraph and not stray off to include extraneous points. This focus is one of the targets for my comments on the content of their paragraphs, along with the relevance of their examples and the quality of the English itself.
Ending the first year
Near the end of students’ first year, they move forward again with at least one simple, easy-to-understand, and relevant social issue for critical thinking, instructed in the same manner as for the study abroad topic already described.
For some years, in the build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and now with the Sapporo bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics, consideration of the arguments for and against Japan hosting the Olympic Games is a topic of immediacy and interest. Another example is the issue of Japan having lowered the voting age (in 2016) from 20 to 18. For some students that time will arrive before they graduate from high school or at least soon thereafter. The Appendix shows the worksheet for the latter topic which presents the framework for students’ paragraph writing.
No research by students is ever needed or allowed for any of the critical thinking topics they work on. With a short, carefully prepared introduction from the teacher, the topics are readily and fully understood. All students at the school have an iPad, so if research is permitted, very likely students will simply copy what they find on the Internet in English or use Google Translate for what they find in Japanese rather than communicate with their partners and exercise their independent thinking and expression in English, which are the fundamental aims of the critical thinking lessons.
There is a further and deeper reason for the selected topics presented to students for critical thinking. As Cummins (2003) observed, “there is an inseparable linkage between the conceptions of language and human identity that we infuse in our classroom instruction” (p. 1). In the context of the instructional choices we make, he notes that we must examine “the extent to which the classroom interactions we orchestrate build on and affirm the cultural, linguistic, intellectual and personal identities that students bring to our classrooms” (p. 5). I believe that our English language instruction in Japan needs to be based on such a humanistic and communicative approach. Students need meaningful opportunities to formulate and express their thoughts and feelings, and to relate experiences and knowledge, drawn from their own lives and the society in which they live. The aim is to enhance their self-awareness and their awareness of their society and culture, and from there to widen and deepen their capacity to understand other people, cultures, and issues on a global scale.
At the conclusion of the first year, I am confident to say that students have got off to a good start with a successful introduction to critical thinking, having developed some of the necessary basic skills for this intellectual and academic exercise. Into their second and even third year, if I am assigned to teach their classes, students move on to other social issues within Japan that, while more complex and challenging for critical thinking, still require no research, just a carefully prepared and presented 20 to 30-minute factual and background introduction. Examples of such issues include the lay judge system (saiban-in seido) and the government’s plan to open “integrated resorts” with casino gambling in the near future. With these topics, students exercise and advance their critical thinking and academic writing skills in the form of a full argumentative essay, including an introduction and a conclusion paragraph along with the three body paragraphs for the points from either side of the issue as they choose.
While some academic writing may require research, I believe it is best to get students started on critical thinking in the manner I have described. Furthermore, this approach is beneficial for students who will face this kind of writing task on tests such as TOEFL and the entrance exam for recommended students now given by many leading universities.
A final point to note is the power of critical thinking for students not only as “a liberating force in education [but also] a powerful resource in one’s personal and civic life” (Facione, 2020, p. 27). Teachers will do well to get students started on developing this skill for their lifelong benefit.
Cummins, J. (2003). Language and the human spirit. TESOL Matters, 13(1).
Edwards, R. (2013). Critical thinking skills in the process of academic writing. Modern English Teacher, 22(1), 5-10.
Facione, P. A. (2020). Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts. Insight Assessment. http://www.insightassessment.com/pdf_files/what&why2010.pdf
Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999). What makes cooperative learning work. In D. Kluge, S. McGuire, D. Johnson, & R. Johnson (Eds.), JALT applied materials: Cooperative learning (pp. 23-26). Tokyo: The Japan Association for Language Teaching.
Mulvey, B. (2016). Writing instruction: What is being taught in Japanese high schools, why, and why it matters. The Language Teacher, 42(3), 3-8. https://doi.org/10.37546/jalttlt40.3-1
James W. Porcaro began teaching mathematics in secondary school in Uganda. He taught ESL in Los Angeles for many years and came to Japan in 1985. After mandatory retirement from his university professorship, he has continued teaching at the university’s affiliated (fuzoku) high school. He has master’s degrees in African Studies and TESOL and has published many articles on his teaching in areas that include Japanese-to-English literary translation, English for Science and Technology, African Studies as CLIL, and high school English.