If you are a teacher of English, you have might have found yourself saying, “British people are polite people, and they will say ‘sorry’ no matter what”. Or the coursebook was presenting a unit about house visits, and along with what was written on the book, you had to say, “People from the Middle Eastern cultures are quite hospitable and enjoy having guests.” Maybe you have started a whole-call discussion on the negative impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak, and one of the students made an unfortunate remark like, “It’s all because of Chinese people and their unusual dietary habits!” And if you are teaching / have thought in a monolingual class with one or two foreign students, you might have observed that the foreign student(s) had to remain silent in group activities most of the time owing to the fiery discussions and brainstorming carried out in the majority’s mother tongue.
All these cases are related to the matter of culture, the integration and teaching of which is one of the most challenging tasks for effective language teaching. When we hear the word ‘culture’, it is common that we immediately visualise different countries, their languages, clothes, or cuisines. However, in addition to these ‘large-scale’ cultures, there are also ‘micro-cultures’, and Neuliep (2017, p. 84) “groups of individuals who have much in common with the larger macro-culture yet are bonded by similar experiences, traits, or values.” We move in and out of several micro-cultures even in our daily lives, and each classroom we teach is a micro-culture with its distinctive characteristics, practices, preferences. A great way of making our students aware of their micro-culture and other large-scale cultures around the world is to introduce them to the skill of "Critical Thinking", a reflective process to provoke thoughts in order to label concepts as true or false. Let’s now step by step exemplify how thinking critically can enable our learners to recognize their own and others’ cultural perspectives and resolve issues stemming from cultural differences.
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.” Isaac Asimov
A considerable body of knowledge we possess regarding people, objects, or events are personal or societal assumptions that are shaped by the education we receive, the family we are raised by, the books we read, social media, and several other factors in our life. With the critical thinking ability, our students can come to this realisation and get free of all the assumptions they have towards their own micro-cultures and the rest of the world. They may just see that their perspective towards the outer world is not purely their individual choice but it is constructed with pieces of ideas, feelings, emotions, sensations, contacts, and experiences just as a river delta is formed by the alluvial soil carried by water from the inner fractions of the land. What’s even better, our students can see that assumptions are not stabilised truths, and they can always be changed when proved wrong. As in the case mentioned above, assumptions are what makes our students think that all Chinese people have an insanitary and omnivorous diet, and they are to be blamed for the spawn and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Do you know what we call opinion in the absence of evidence? We call it prejudice.” Michael Crichton, State of Fear
As a result of our assumptions, it is always possible for us to make a wrong judgement, behave in an inappropriate way, or treat people unfairly in a moment of intercultural communication, and all these constitute our prejudices. Just like assumptions, prejudices are not based on solid grounds of reality, and most of the time, they have their roots in stereotypes, over-generalised beliefs about a particular individual or a society. Critical thinking can teach our students to leave their prejudices aside and analyse their interaction with someone from another culture objectively through the lens of caution, tolerance, open-mindedness, and fairness. When they start to read, listen, or watch with the guidance of critical thinking, they will understand that not each and every person belonging to a Middle Eastern culture should necessarily be hospitable and like having guests, and this is a stereotypical view of Middle Easterners.
“A weak fact is still greater than a strong opinion.” Matshona Dhliwayo
The description of a scene and its interpretation are two different things from each other, and while a forest full of trees can be described as green by all eyes, not everyone will interpret it as the incarnation of serenity and peace. Similarly, facts and opinions are distinct concepts, and they play key roles in intercultural communication. Once our students are capable of making this distinction, they will see that opinions about events, objects, or a group of people, no matter how many people share them, may not always be true unless there is solid evidence to support them. British people saying ‘sorry’ no matter what might be the common observation by many, and these observers may regard the British as polite people, but this is still the personal opinion of only a number of people and not a scientific fact.
“If you excessively concentrate on a closed door, you may miss the alternative easy entries!” Mehmet Murat İldan
One final benefit of critical thinking skill is that it can show language learners different approaches to a situation, and that sticking with only one option regardless of the outcome is a wrong attitude. In the event that they face a cultural challenge, they will not act right away with the first impulse they feel, but they will actively listen, ask for further information if necessary, analyse, evaluate, and then act. If we turn back to the group discussion and the foreign student example, we can see that those students did not analyse the situation critically and concluded that in a group of five people in which four speak the same language, deciding in favour of the majority and getting done with the job seemed the best option. However, the group could have also searched for alternatives such as written communication, a peer-translator, task division, and several others, which are easy to come up with once learners became eager to engage in a critical thinking process.
At the end of the day, all these different competences may sound conceptions; however, critical thinking is a process that can be taught and improved with good practice. As an English teacher, if you are interested in instilling critical thinking in your students and raising awareness in terms of their views of culture, you are most welcome to check the lesson I designed by visiting the materials page on my personal blog www.diaryofatrainer.com. While planning this lesson, I benefited from the Critical Thinking VALUE Rubric created by the Association of American Colleges & Universities. I realised that it is technically possible to use this rubric (or its adaptations) with any project or assignment so that our students can self-assess the quality of their own work through critical thinking. You can do the lesson in your online classes if you are using a platform such as Adobe Connect or Zoom, or you can easily adapt the stages into an in-class reading lesson.
Neuliep, J. W. (2009). Intercultural communication: A contextual approach (4th ed). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.
World Learning. (2018). Micro-cultures. In Integrating Critical Thinking Skills into the Exploration of Culture in an EFL Setting [Online course].
About Metin Esen
Metin Esen is an associate member of IATEFL, registered through TESOL Turkey association to which he contributes as a member of the Events Planning Council. He is an instructor of English and a teacher trainer at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University, School of Foreign languages in Ankara, Turkey. He holds an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction at Bilkent University, Ankara, and DELTA certificate by Cambridge University. His interests are teaching English as a foreign language, English for academic purposes, professional development, teacher training, advising in language learning, and technology in education.
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