Implicit and explicit critical thinking activities

Implicit and explicit critical thinking activities

Educators are researchers by nature: they dig deeper to analyse and implement new strategies in their classrooms, paying attention to all the profession-related updates. They are by all means critical thinkers who always search for thought-provoking ideas — not only to make their teaching methods more sophisticated but brain-friendly and applicable for their students outside the classroom. And here is the point where teachers can share their superpower — the ability to think critically — with the students. Let’s examine the ways of raising questioning minds with the help of explicit and implicit critical thinking activities. 

What’s in a name? 

Becoming an integral part of our teaching lives, critical thinking is still hard to be explained with the fixed definition. In fact, these definitions vary from questioning everything and observing the social environment neatly to encouraging students to look for the answers without constant teacher’s assistance. What appears to be a consensus is that critical thinking enables students to broaden their knowledge without relying on ready-made solutions. 

Our teaching expectations from working with critical thinking activities lay in confidence that learners are becoming more curious, analytical minds. And it’s a sort of easier-said-than-done thing. So how to prepare the grounds for practising such activities? Paul Dummett and John Hughes, authors of the book Critical Thinking in ELT: A Working Model for the Classroom, introduced the model for teachers that shows how exactly the skill of critical thinking evolves as a part of cognitive development in language teaching. According to them, tasks serve different goals: basic comprehension tasks mainly activate low-order thinking skills, the deeper level of understanding supposes learners go beyond given patterns of lexis or grammar using critical thinking, and the edge of learners’ mastery — creative thinking — enables them to feel freer and show creative approach in language production.

It all starts with a basic comprehension: we don’t expect learners to make a broader analysis as their language level isn’t sufficient to go beyond. Various coursebooks offer tasks such as matching, deciding whether the statement is true or false according to the text students read, and others. The tasks are mainly explicit as students are going to deal with and analyse information that was previously given/taught and retrieve it later. Despite being crucial functional pillars, they don’t provide the student with freer ways of achieving communicative efficiency. Even while trying to produce and tame knowledge given, they may struggle to understand the ways of using it practically. Room for deeper engagement and reflection lies in expanding the task’s frameworks. But what works better — implicit or explicit activities?

Going hand in hand

Let’s define both types of learning and what they offer within the tasks. As a conscious and controlled way of processing information, explicit learning encourages the learners to know the composition of the learning process and express the knowledge that has learned. Meanwhile, implicit learning stimulates learners’ unconscious behaviour as they are not familiar with the content they are working with. In other words, explicit learning is all about consciousness and controllability whereas implicit learning is automatic, abstract, stable, and sets the limits for the educator’s interference.

We typically associate critical thinking with implicit tasks that don’t give the students a skeleton key. However, implementing this routine of growing curiosity doesn’t mean excluding explicit activities: they also can function as triggers of enabling critical evaluation and creativity. To make the most of critical thinking activities, they should be used in tandem. Below we will design examples that use both types of tasks and reflect on the language aims of every step and its contribution to boosting students’ critical and creative thinking: 

Basic comprehension level

Language aim: to teach vocabulary related to free time activities 

Task A: Match the words to the pictures

Choose 7 free time activities (for example, to do mountain biking, to do drama, to play computer games, to do photography, to go camping, to go skiing, to play basketball etc.) and prepare visuals in advance so that students can match activities with pictures. 

Task B: Sentence completion 

Ask students to complete sentences using the words from Task A. Provide them with feedback if needed. 

1) Do you _____ drama twice a week?

2) Jane _____ mountain _____: she is a very risky girl!

3) My sister enjoys doing _____. Everyone thinks she should start collecting a portfolio of them. 

4) My mum will never let me go to _____ with friends. She says I’m young and can get lost. 

5) Most parents think that playing _____ is not a good way to spend free time and relax after a busy school day. 

6) The weather was so snowy that we couldn’t go _____. 

7) Our school team became the winner: nobody can play _____ just like our mate Brian does!

Task C: Interview your teacher and recommend some activities.

The last activity is more demanding as students are going to interact with the teacher and request information. This task deepens the practice and makes production more challenging as spontaneous reactions are needed. It’s not only about the retrieval of words, but the usage in a more or less real context. In Task C implicit activity is quite simple, but Wh-questions allow us to stimulate low-level language learners to think deeper, adjusting lexis to the inevitable out-of-classroom language production: 

  • What are your favourite free-time activities? Why?
  • Where do you spend … ? How was it?
  • Was it hard for you to…?
  • I think you should/can try …

Activity analysis: The combination of explicit and implicit activities here monitors students’ level of comprehension with a gentle attempt to use information during the production stage of the lesson. However, the focus on essential knowledge, not critical thinking is clear. Below we are going to design an activity that will help students to use their critical thinking more obviously.

Deeper understanding (critical thinking level)

Language aim: to guide students to a discovery about how to go, play, and do are used when talking about free time activities 

Task A: List of activities: 

Look at the list of activities below and think if there is a special rule of using to do, to go and to play with them

to do mountain biking, to do drama, to play computer games, to do photography, to go camping, to go skiing, to play basketball

Task B: Which activities:

  • end in -ing?
  • need pre-training or special equipment? 
  • can be done alone and in a group? 

Task C: Think of five other free-time activities. Which of them will need verbs to do, to go, to play?

Activity analysis: A wise combination of explicit and implicit activities creates room for learners’ critical reflection: not only they need to deduce (or try to deduce) grammar peculiarities but search for a wider range of topic vocabulary used with the verbs to do, to go, to play. By doing this, they can discover and tame collocations and understand their usage deeper. 

Creative thinking level

Language aim: to analyse a story and its message with a stimulus to students writing their own 

Task A. Read the story and answer the questions:

Add some drama to your life 

When you have a really busy school timetable, it is not an easy thing to find time for a hobby: all you think about is how to chill out. That is what my friends and classmates say, but I think differently. 

Instead of doing nothing, I try to discover my talents by doing drama in my school club. Initially, it was my mother’s idea: as a student, she attended various clubs and even went camping once, but she wanted me to do something safe, not just funny. Before joining the drama club, I tried playing basketball and did photography. I enjoyed it, but the atmosphere was a bit unfriendly and competitive, so I quit. 

I feel that I have become much more confident and happier. Doing drama is a good way to find your secret superpower. For me, it is a chance to show how I really am: creative, sociable and fearless!

  1. What is the story about?
  2. What does the author say about a school timetable and free time activities? 
  3. What activities did the author try before doing drama?

Task B: Look at the story again and imagine that it is written by you. What is so special about the structure and style of writing. What would you change to make it more interesting to read?  

Task C: Try to make this writing interesting for the reader. To do this, you can make it personal with your own memories and experience.

Activity analysis: Immaculately combining basic comprehension, critical and creative thinking, we guide learners through all the task stages — starting with checking general understanding, then adding more space to talk about issues of style and reader’s perception of the story, and ending up with a productive task to nurture creative and critical thinking altogether, relying on the grounds of explicit and implicit knowledge. 

The above-made analysis proves that only the tandem of explicit and implicit critical thinking activities works to its fullest: as teachers, we should not fall into the trap of implicit knowledge supremacy. Undoubtedly, they are targeted at stimulating high-order thinking skills, though it is impossible to imagine receptive skills training without the explicit learning approach. 

How do you define a perfect balance between explicit and implicit activities? Let us know in the comments:)

Speaking activities are, obviously, essential for English language speaking classes. A lot of students join classes particularly to develop their communicative competence, become more fluent, versatile, adaptable, and confident communicators in English. However, designing speaking activities might be time-consuming and nerve-wracking for any teacher. We have prepared a memo with superb ready-made speaking tasks that will make your student talking. Download it here.

Анастасия Яковлева

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