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The Growing Problem of Foreigners Not Knowing How to Think

German (left) versus Chinese techniques of exptressing an opinion, graphically illustrated. More at bsix12

Recently, I attended a conference for English teachers, and a talk on the need to “teach our students critical thinking skills.” This is a growing movement within EFL (English as a Foreign Language). And it is alarming.

We are not talking here, note, about grade school kids, or high school kids. These are college and university students.

Can we assume that these students really “do not know how to think critically”? Isn’t there an obvious danger that what we are really seeing, given the EFL context, is a tendency to think in ways unfamiliar to us EFL teachers as Westerners? Isn’t it racist, flat-out racist, to assume that we are the experts on “how to think,” apparently on no better grounds than that we Westerners?

But let’s suppose the students—EFL students everywhere, apparently-- genuinely do not know how to think. Should we, as English teachers, be telling them? If the average university student “does not know how to think,” on what grounds can we assume that the average English teacher does? We have no qualifications, and have never been tested ourselves, in the subject. How much do we really know about formal logic, logical fallacies, formal debate procedure, and the syllogism? You want someone with qualifications to teach you how to think clearly and incisively, you want a philosophy grad, not an English major.

Finally, where do we get off deciding what the students need to know? Our students have signed up to learn English. That’s what we tell them we are here to do, and that is what they are paying for. Where do we get the right to instead make them spend their time “learning how to think” as we would like?

German versus Chinese approach to problem-solving.
This is symptomatic of a larger problem we face in the EFL field. In the normal course of things, as the EFL field has grown, it is universities and linguistics departments in English-speaking countries have set themselves up as the "experts" to train aspirants for this "profession." With the trainers being the resident instructors there.

This means that those who are training people for careers in EFL either 1) have not themselves ever taught abroad, or, 2) if they have, have decided they would rather return home. In other words, they are self-selected for not being good at dealing with foreign cultures.

Among other problems, this bias means that the standard TEFL/TESOL training ignores altogether the one most important issue faced by people in the field: how to deal with a foreign culture.

Nor, catastrophically, do they learn anything about comparative lingustics, because their trainers know nothing about it. Asa result, the field tends to treat EFL students as though they have never previously known any other language; as if before they started learning English they could not read or write.Besides being terribly insulting, this means we spend a huge amount of time--about half of all class time, by my reckoning--"teaching" EFL students things they already know from their first language: skimming and scanning a reading passage, composing a paragraph, listening for details, and so forth. At the same time, we ignore any issues that are likely to cause them special problems: things like the difference in how tone is used in Chinese and in English. To teach at all efficiently, any teacher of EFL should have a basic knowledge of their likely students' first language--training should involve at leasto ne course in comparative linguistics. This need not require all the heavy lifting of vocabulary aquisition. But they should know the basics: word order, how stress is used, what phonemes are available, and so forth.

Ultimately, the solution is simple: TESOL training should be offered and taken, by native speakers, but at universities in non-English-speaking countries. Nor would this be difficult to do: the expence of moving abroad could be more than offset by the cheaper cost of living while studying in a country like Cambodia or Costa Rica.

Lyrics Training

The Myth of Chinese Superschools

It's a bit more complicated than this; the Confucian system involved and involves a lot more than rote learning, and rote learning is seriously undervalued in the modern West, but this piece makes good points about slavishly valuing standardized tests. They have nothing to do with the real world, and distort the process is weird ways.



Teaching with Movies


A free downloadable flashcards program that allows you to imbed images, audio, and video.

The Grimace Project

Here's a useful resource for visually explaining basic vocabulary for emotions. It would work well on a smartboard or a projector.