Critical Thinking Instruction in a Blended Learning Environment

By David Gann

In 2008, I began introducing content into first and second-year conversation and reading classes aimed at fostering the development of critical thinking skills. In this article, I briefly describe how a blended learning approach transformed classrooms into dynamic and fun experiential learning spaces.

Initially, integrating content aimed at teaching general critical thinking skills led to a strain on class time. With only ninety minutes a week, teacher-fronted presentation of content via explicit instruction left insufficient time for students to engage in conversation and complete language learning tasks. Also, students had difficulty with the triple cognitive load of (1) understanding the abstract principles of critical thinking; (2) parsing the meta-language through which those principles were conveyed; and (3) applying critical thinking skills to readings or other media involving social issues. This was predictable in light of Schmidt’s observation that “control processing associated with novice behavior cannot be carried out concurrently with other demanding tasks” (1990: 136). I found myself between two contradictory truisms: first, that what is needed in the classroom is not more but less teacher-talk; and second, that regrettably, critical thinking instruction involves just that: instruction. This was the impetus behind the creation of Critically Minded Podcast: Critical Thinking for Second Language Learners, ( which Nicholas Bufton and I began co-producing in 2010.

The podcast solved the aforementioned problems in several ways. For our purposes here, it relocated explicit instruction as out-of-class mobile learning and thereby reserved more class time for student-student communication. Podcasting also allowed us to offer carefully expressed quality instruction designed the way we considered appropriate and which we found unavailable in commercial textbooks for English learners. Specifically, we avoided an issues-based approach by teaching critical thinking skills through simple and expressly non-sociopolitical examples. Thus, by controlling the nature and quality of our content as well as the space in which that content was delivered, cognitive load was minimized.

When we introduced the podcast, Bufton and I were very much focused on piloting its implementation and monitoring student response. After smoothing out the technical and logistical wrinkles; however, we were able to step back and see that moving explicit instruction out of the classroom had affected the class holistically. Shifting from a traditional to a blended learning approach has required maintaining students’ sense that the podcasted content is relevant to what occurs in class.

Accordingly, the class is no longer a partitioned space but rather includes a new “third space” (Godwin-Jones 2005: 17) where podcast delivered content overlaps with students’ emergent ability to notice and apply certain lexical devices associated with either written or spoken argumentative form (such as premise indicators, conclusion indicators, major and minor premise indicators, issue indicators etc.). Schmidt explains how “noticing is the necessary and sufficient condition for converting input to intake” (1990: 129). In my revised pedagogy, Schmidt’s noticing is scaffolded through the course of four cumulative stages.

Gann Figure 1

In short, podcast content flows into in-class small-group discussion and notebook presentation at which time the advantages of face-to-face communication can be exploited. In addition to building a sense of classroom community, these discussions in turn prepare students for text reconstruction exercises, which reinforce the noticing of the salient textual features discussed in each podcast. Working from the precept that “task demands are powerful determinants of what is noticed” (Schmidt 1990: 143), these exercises are performed in pairs or triads. Students are tasked to orally mediate a successful completion of the exercises in terms of premises and conclusions. Text reconstruction exercises have been an indispensable method for replicating successes detailed in (Gutierrez 2006) and (Mercer 1996).

In stage four, students begin group project-work relevant to their field of study, for example regional policy, business, or English literature. Depending on the course and the nature of the project, students use a blend of two means of communicating and working on-line. At the Forums of the Critically Minded blog, students can post their work in discussion threads. They can also comment on the work of other students. In addition, if, after posting their work, other students’ work leads them to reconsider their own contribution, they can reenter their post in edit mode and continue working. This format allows some exchange of ideas but is suited more for individual work.

Social constructivist theory, has guided me towards working more with on-line documents such as a Google Doc or Primary Pad. Primary Pad has two features that make it very useful for assessing group work. Like a Google Doc it contains a chat area and students are directed to engage in a/synchronous collaborative communication. Primary Pad users are assigned a text color so any composition in the work area can be attributed to the group member who did that work. Furthermore, Primary Pad features a time slider, so the teacher can view the history of the composition. The immediacy of chat encourages communication that closely approximates face-to-face communication (Thorne 2005: 374). Also, some students who are reticent to speak out during small-group discussion feel less inhibited in a chat context (Warschauer 1997: 473). Asynchronous text communication also has advantages over both face-to-face communication and text chat. It “provides time for reflection” (Garrison et al. 2000: 90) and “is very closely associated with careful and critical thinking” (90).

It is important to note that although the figure above appears to show a linear path, a more complete illustration would show a cyclical pattern. At the same time students begin stage three or four, the next podcast episode introducing new content is assigned. Stage four therefore is not a culmination of the entire term. It is begun during the second month and is revisited successively as students build a community of inquiry (Garrison 2000) and develop individual critical competence.

This blended learning approach has blurred the line between in-class and out-of-class learning. The podcast, which initially resembled an annex, has come to be an integral component of the course. This was accomplished not by an increased emphasis of the podcast itself, but by the development of a four-stage process predicated on the need of holistic balance. The ratio of teacher-fronted instruction time to pair work and small-group discussion time has been dramatically inverted. During my presentation at the Kusatsu Conference this year, I presented examples of students’ application of the aforementioned textual features that demonstrate how effective this pedagogy has been in converting input into intake. As a result of the demands of developing the technical end of this curriculum the second stage of small-group discussion has hitherto received the least attention. In future terms, I plan to develop materials that will activate vocabulary and provide a more guided approach to the discussions in order to provide support for the students who most need it.

David Gann composed this article shortly after co-presenting with with Nicholas Bufton on the morning of August 25th, 2013 at the Gunma JALT 24th Annual Workshop at Kusatsu. David has been teaching in Japan since 1996 and is an Assistant Professor at Tokyo University of Science. He holds a M.A. in English Literature and recently completed a second M.A. in Educational Technologies and TESOL at the University of Manchester. He is the coordinator of the Critical Thinking SIG and the co-producer of Critically Minded Podcast. His main interests include critical thinking instruction, CALL and learner autonomy. You can contact him at


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