The Internet TESL Journal

Creative and Critical Thinking in Language Classrooms

Muhammad Kamarul Kabilan
mkamarul [at]
University Technology MARA (Kedah, Malaysia)
The communicative approach to language teaching emphasizes the use of language, meaning and language as a communication tool and hypothesizes that learners become proficient by using the language and not just by learning about the language. However, it is the view of this writer that merely using the language and knowing the meaning is not enough. To become proficient in a language, learners need to use creative and critical thinking through the target language. This paper explains what is needed and how it is achieved.


In this paper, Paulo Freire's ideas and approach are adopted, especially the concepts of "Pedagogy of Questions" and "Problem-posing". I will attend to the questions of what teachers need in order to develop creative and critical language learners, and how they could achieve it. A couple of sample activities are given to substantiate the explanations.


The communicative approach to language teaching began to overshadow the systematic approach in the 1950s. The latter outlined that if learners are to be proficient in the language, they must master the mechanism by which the language works, and learn the language system. On the contrary the communicative approach emphasized that learners become proficient by using the language, and not by just merely learning about the language.

However, by only using and knowing the meaning, learners do not become proficient in the target language. I strongly believe that learners can only become proficient language users if they, besides using the language and knowing the meaning, could display creative and critical thinking through the language. This implies that the learners must be creative in their production of ideas, and critically support them with logical explanation, details and examples. Nevertheless, creative and critical thinking skills should not be taught separately as an isolated entity, but embedded in the subject matter and "woven into the curriculum" (Mirman and Tishman, 1988).

Creative and Critical Language Learners

For the purpose of this paper, creative and critical language learners are defined in terms of the learners' cognitive abilities to carry out certain tasks effectively. The creative language learners should be able to combine responses or ideas in novel ways (Smith, Ward and Finke, 1995), and to use elaborate, intricate, and complex stimuli and thinking patterns (Feldman, 1997). As for the critical language learners, they must be able to carefully and deliberately determine to accept, reject or suspend judgment about a claim (Moore and Parker, 1986). Critical language learners must also be able to identify and cite good reasons for their opinions and answers, correct themselves and others' methods and procedures, and adapt to uniformities, regularities, irregular circumstances, special limitations, constraints and over-generalizations (Lipman, 1988).

What is Needed

Having said what is expected of creative and critical language learners, we ought to scrutinize the roles of the teachers as they have an enormous amount of responsibilities in classrooms. They determine and dictate the content, activities and processes of teaching and learning in classrooms. It is the teachers who decide on the aims, goals, and strategies of teaching to be implemented in classrooms. If teachers decide to produce learners who would obtain good results in their examinations, then their contents, activities and strategies of teaching would vastly differ from the ones who resolved to nurture creative and critical language learners. This has led me to conclude that the only element needed to address this issue is the change of teachers' attitudes towards of students, pedagogy, and themselves as teachers.

Attitude towards Students

There are teachers who regard learners as empty vessels, which need to be filled with knowledge. The teachers tend to assume that the learners do not have any, or little prior knowledge and experiences regarding the subject matter that is going to be taught in classrooms.These teachers ignore, knowingly or unknowingly, the individuality of students. They fail to understand and appreciate the learners' own unique experiences, and concepts, notions and views of the world. Teachers who do not acknowledge each learner's individuality will often lead a boring and unimaginative language classroom because of the minimal participation and involvement of learners. The learners will feel left out and assume their opinions and beliefs as not relevant or important enough to be heard in the classroom. Eventually, this would pave the way to a molding process of passive language learners, and be a cause to the detriment of creative and critical thinking.

Teachers could gain much by listening to the learners' opinions and beliefs. The obvious one being the enrichment of experience, ideas and thoughts in a discussion of an issue. For this to flow without hindrance, teachers should develop a mutual relationship with their learners. Freire (1973) described this relationship as "I-thou relationship between two subjects". This means that teachers need to consider learners as individuals who are equals in a situation of genuine two-way communication (Spener, 1990). Besides that, it must also involve respect (Smith, 1997) and characterizes the communication in a manner which is humble, open and focused on collaborative learning (Boyce, 1996). More importantly, the learners learn from the teacher, and the teacher learns from the learners.

Attitude towards Pedagogy

Producing critical and creative language learners is by no means an easy task, but it can be achieved by engaging the Pedagogy of Question, which was proposed by Freire (1970 & 1973). This pedagogy requires posing questions to learners and listening to learners' questions. This is a practice which forces and challenges the learners to think creatively and critically, and to adopt a critical attitude towards the world (Muhammad Kamarul Kabilan, 1999).

The current situation is that teachers widely practice the pedagogy of answers, whereby teachers provide the answers and solutions to learners. Most frequently, this is done subconsciously. They never realized that they are "spoon-feeding" the learners most of the time. By giving answers, teachers deny the learners the opportunities and the right to question, to doubt and to reject. In addition, the learners will not be exposed to challenges and stimulation of thoughts (Freire, in Bruss and Macedo, 1985). Freire added that teachers tend to adopt the pedagogy of answers because they are sometimes afraid of questions to which they are unsure of the answers, and also because maybe the questions do not correspond to the answers they already have. Thus, it is extremely vital that teachers have positive beliefs and attitudes towards questions. They should also be prepared to ask questions in different ways in order to enhance the cognitive development of learners. Costa and Marzano (1987) demonstrated this by using specific terminology, posing critical questions and creating new labels to structure perceptions (Appendix 1).

Attitude towards Themselves (as Teachers)

Teachers' beliefs and attitudes about themselves, and their functions in language classrooms have momentous implications for learners' ability to think creatively and critically. If the teachers think that their primary roles are to teach and provide answers and information, then the learners are exposed to the culture of "spoon-feeding". Eventually, the learners" ability to look for answers and solutions, and to inquire, to decide, to question, to reject and to accept ideas will greatly diminish.

Teachers need to believe that their major roles are to think, guide, initiate, facilitate and encourage the learners. This will put them in a right frame of mind and lead the learners into becoming a community of collaborative inquirers.

How It Is Achieved

I propose Freire's problem-posing methodology to develop critical and creative language learners. This method is based on the life situations and realities of learners whereby their life situations are made into problem-solving situations. It concentrates on showing learners that they have the right to ask questions. The process of problem-solving begins when the teacher listens to learners' issues. Next, the teacher selects and brings familiar situations to students in a pictorial form. Then, the teacher asks series of inductive questions (from concrete to analytical) regarding the discussion of the situation. In that discussion, the learners should experience five steps of the problem-posing methodology (Nixon-Ponder, 1995):
  1. Describe the content of discussion
  2. Define the problem
  3. Personalize the problem
  4. Discuss the problem
  5. Discuss the alternatives of the problem
In this method, the aspects of posing critical questions are very consequential. Both aspects spark the learners' ideas and thoughts, which are premised on their personal beliefs, concepts, experiences and views of the world (See Sample Activity A: Problem-posing ). In the sample activity, questions 1 and 2 need creative thinking skills on the part of the learners. Teachers should accept the learners' views, ideas and reasons why there are so many 'things' flying over the bin, and where could they have seen this situation. These questions would induce their creative thinking skills because the learners are challenged to produce their reasons, and they have to imagine that they are at the particular place. Furthermore, they need to figure out what makes the bin so attractive to the 'things'. I have not specified what the 'things' or 'the place' is because I would like to give the learners the chance to guess, and/or to interpret 'things' and 'the place' according to their own perceptions. In addition they could, and most probably, would use their own experiences to describe and interpret the situation presented in the picture. This gives them the chance to relate the discussion to the real situations that they might have encountered. Question 3 involves both the creative and critical thinking skills, as the learners would have to present their opinions whether the situation presented reflects cleanliness or not, and why it does or does not reflect cleanliness. As for Question 4, learners need to use their criticalthinking abilities. It probes the learners' abilities to find a solution on how cleanliness could be achieved.

Besides the above, decision making processes could also be used to sow the seeds of creative and critical thinking into language learners (See Sample Activity B: Decision-Making). First of all, the teacher needs to identify common but real situations or problems to be discussed by the learners. Then the three steps of decision-making strategies are used (Mirman and Tishman, 1988):

  1. Find creative options to the situations or problems
  2. List reasons for and against the most promising options, and
  3. Make a careful choice out of list of reasons
In the Sample Activity B, questions 1 and 2 need creative thinking; questions 3 and 4 require both creative and critical thinking. Questions 5 and 6 need critical thinking abilities in order to pass the verdict and the sentence. The learners, who act as the judges, analyze the evidence provided, rationalize the reasons, and weigh their judgments. These kinds of activities are the avenues for learners to voice their opinions, thoughts, beliefs and views, and more primarily, to strengthen their creative and critical thinking in relations to the real problems that are so often found in the real world.


The fundamental issue, which most teachers tend to ignore, is the capabilities of their learners. If teachers continue to disregard learners' views and opinions, or suppress them without ever giving the learners the chance to express themselves, then the learners would not be able to train and use their thinking skills. Teachers should facilitate and encourage creative and critical thinking skills by viewing their learners differently from what they had presumed. They also need to change their pedagogical views and adopt a more flexible attitude towards their teaching and not be too concentrated and dependent on textbooks and their schools' aspirations, which are usually exam-oriented. What is more important is the aspirations of the learners and how teachers could exploit the potentials of their learners. Also needed is the change of teachers' views of themselves. They are not providers but thinkers who constantly think of what could be done to encourage creative and critical thinking in their learners.


Appendix 1

Using Precise Terminology to Encourage Thinking

Instead of Saying:
'Let's look at these two pictures.''Let's compare the two pictures'
'What do you think will happen when ...''What do you predict will happen when ...'
'What do you think of this story?''What conclusions can you draw about this story?'
'How can you explain ...?''What evidence do you have to support ...?'
'Let's work this problem.''Let's analyze this problem.'

Adapted from: Costa & Marzano (1987)

Encouraging Learners to Think About Thinking

When Learners Say
Teachers Say:
'The verdict is, guilty as charged.''Describe the steps you took to arrive at that answer.'
'I don't know how to solve this question.''What can you do to get started?'
'I am ready to begin.''Describe your plan of action.'
'I like the large one the best.''What criteria are you using to make your choice?'
'I am finished.''How do you know you're correct?'

Adapted from: Costa & Marzano (1987)

A Sample Activity A: Problem-posing

Topic: Cleanliness


  1. Think creatively and critically
  2. To find solutions to problems based on logical reasons
Task: Based on the picture (a picture of unattended waste bin) given,
  1. Why are there so many 'things' flying over the bin?
  2. Where have you seen this scenery?
  3. Do you feel that this picture reflects cleanliness? Why?
  4. What is the one thing that is needed to ensure cleanliness in the places that you have mentioned?

A Sample Activity B: Decision Making

Topic: Anwar Ibrahim's Corruption Trial


  1. Think creatively and critically
  2. Decision making based on logical reasons
Task: You are the judge for Anwar Ibrahim's corruption trial. You have heard the evidences and closing submissions by the prosecutors and the defense counselors. You have to give your verdict for this trial based on the evidences and submissions provided by both parties. (Note: Teachers need to provide the evidences. They also need to display impartiality on this issue).

But before you give your verdict, consider these procedures:

  1. Can this trial be thrown out? Why?
  2. Does this trial have to go on? Why?
  3. Is he guilty? Why?
  4. Is he innocent? Why?
  5. What is your verdict? Why?
  6. If found guilty, what is the sentence that you want to pass?

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 6, June 2000