ESL: Images of Critical Thinking across Disciplines

From ESL Instructional Resources by Young-Kyung Min, PhD

Critical thinking is one of the buzzwords we hear these days in academia. We often see in the mission statements of higher education institutions and learning goals of college courses that cultivating students’ critical thinking skills is a primary aim. As much as the perception of good writing is embedded in the histories of ideologies, pedagogies, and epistemologies on which any literacy practices are based, the practice of critical thinking is deeply situated within specific disciplinary fields. The term “critical” originated from the Greek meaning of “discerning”, “separating”, or “differentiating” (Farrell, 2001). But many international students may associate the idea of being critical with some sort of negativity, such as criticizing someone, and have difficulty understanding their professors’ comments on their papers that their writing is not “critical” enough. Students who grew up in a collective society have difficulty differentiating their own opinions from others and are not very comfortable critiquing the perspectives of famous scholars and professors.

As the practice of critical thinking has become an important topic in academia, the ways in which critical thinking are conceptualized and taught both in and outside the classroom have received a great amount of attention from researchers and instructors in a wide range of disciplines. Some argue that thinking and reasoning skills can be taught as if they are generalizable and transferrable skills—skills that the students can learn and apply to other literacy contexts (Davidson, 1998; Gieve, 1998; Hawkins, 1998). Some argue that critical thinking is not an autonomous, cognitive skill that can be learned out of context; domain knowledge and domain practice are essential for critical thinking practice both inside and outside the classroom (Atkinson, 1997; Pennycook, 1999; Willingham, 2007).

Although the procedures may change in each class, an activity that is often used for students’ critical thinking skills training in a writing class is a visual thinking strategies exercise (Min, 2013). An instructor brings visual illustrations (e.g. pictures, posters, advertisements, artifacts, etc.) to class and leads students to interpret what is going on in the images. As students come up with a variety of responses, the instructor asks them to compare their interpretations with those of other students and discuss why each person’s interpretation of the same image is unique. The instructor leads them to realize that there are multiple perspectives on an issue and each issue has its own sets of support and evidence.

This kind of critical thinking skills training can be very different from critical thinking training in Engineering or in Business Administration; domain knowledge and domain practice are essential for critical thinking training both inside the classroom and beyond the classroom. The socially-situated nature of critical thinking practice is clearly reflected in the statement that critical thinking is “a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in—and even trained scientists can fail in” (Willingham, 2007, p. 10). Thus, it is very important for faculty to explain the meaning of being “critical” and provide models of good papers that illustrate “critical thinking and critical analysis” for the specific assignment, especially when they work with international undergraduate students.


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

Davidson, B. (1998). A case for critical thinking in the English language classroom. TESOL Quarerly, 32(1), 119-123.

Farrell, T.S.C. (2001). Critical friendships: colleagues helping each other develop. English Language Teaching Journal, 55, 368-374.

Gieve, S. (1998). A reader reacts: Comments on Dwight Atkinson’s “A Critical Approach to Critical Thinking in TESOL.” TESOL Quarerly, 32(1), 123-129.

Hawkins, M. (1998). Apprenticing nonnative speakers to new discourse communities. TESOL Quarerly, 32(1), 129-132.

Min, Y. K. (2012). Image of critical thinking skills training in a college writing program, National Teaching and Learning Forum, 22(1), 5-7.

Pennycook, A. (1999). Introduction: Critical approaches to TESOL, TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 329-348.

Willingham, D. (2007). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?. American Educator, Summer, 8-19.  



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  Young-Kyung Min, PhD

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