Challenging students to think critically | Webinar summary

This is a summary for a webinar by Edmund Dudley conducted several weeks ago which I never got around to finishing. I found some of the activities quite interesting. Everyone’s jumping on the critical thinking bandwagon and it looks like OUP too has included some stuff on the skill in their newer course books.  Most of the activities seem to be drawn from OUP Insight but I reckon you could use the ‘frame’ of some of these activities with your own texts and materials. The basic premise of these activities is that Ss are used to having too much information at their fingertips and tend to consume it without scrutinising it.

Activity: Mystery animal

Show Ss the following facts and ask them to guess which animal it might be. Then show Ss pictures/screenshots from the Tree Octopus website.

Lives in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington state.

Amphibious – spends early life and mating season in the water.

Solitary cephalopod, 33-35 cm from arm-tip to mantle tip.

Can survive on land thanks to specialized skin adaptations and moistness of the rainforests.


The creature is in fact the Pacific North-west Tree Octopus and there is a website dedicated to its preservation. But and there’s a big but, if this remarkable animal is so threatened, why don’t we hear more about it?

The website on the tree octopus was actually created by educators who wanted to get people to think about the difference between information and knowledge – that just because a website exists doesn’t mean that its contents are true. Some lessons that can drawn from the tree octopus include:

  • Information is not the same as knowledge
  • Comprehending a text is not the same as understanding it
  • The key to understanding is thinking about what you read

Activity: Health facts 

Look at these 5 facts and identify which one would be the most important one for you to let your Ss know:

1. You should drink eight glasses of water a day.

2. You can treat the flu with antibiotics.

3. Chicken soup can help you when you have a cold.

4. You shouldn’t drink cold drinks when you have a cold.

5. It isn’t dangerous to go swimming immediately after a meal.

They’re in fact a combination of facts and myths. The manner in which information is presented sometimes leads us into believing things that may not be true. An activity like this could challenge Ss to think about the way they accept information.

Answers: 1.False (you get liquid from all sorts of sources including coffee and fruit) 2. False (influenza is a virus) 3. True 4. False 5. True

Activity: Steve?

Inform the Ss that you’re going to tell them about an American named Steve. He’s been selected at random:

Steve has been described by a neighbour as follows: ‘He is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in the people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail’.

Ask Ss if they think Steve is more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? What led them to this inference?

Steve is in fact 20 times more likely to be a farmer than a librarian because there are 20 times more farmers than librarians in the US. All of the characteristics described are completely irrelevant to the decision making process – a computer would disregard these details but we are influenced by it. This activity was apparently adapted from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnmann (and this is the second time in the recent past that Kahnmann has cropped up in an ELT webinar).

Activity: Discerning intent

Show Ss the following text and get them to respond to it.

Like most sixteen-year-old teenagers, Amar Latif loved riding his bike. He’d often fall off, but undeterred he’d always get right back on. Then one day, after yet another accident, his parents decided that enough was enough, and sold it.

Then, present the second part of the text and ask Ss to discuss how their opinions may have changed.

The reason was his eyesight. At the age of four, Amar was diagnosed with a rare degenerative eye condition. By sixteen, his eyesight had deteriorated so much that he couldn’t’ ride his bike. Today, Amar is blind – and Traveleyes organizes holidays for visually-impaired people.

What might have been the writer’s reasons for narrating the story or writing the article in this way? Elicit that the writer withheld some information that led us to think in a certain way.

Activity: Flame challenge 

Edmund asked the audience to consider the difference between comprehending something and understanding it. He challenges his Ss to take a text and go beyond merely comprehension using the principles of the Flame challenge. The Flame Challenge is a competition for scientists run by the Center for Communicating Science. The winner is someone who can explain an answer to a question such that an eleven year old can understand. The judging is also done by eleven year olds. The original challenge involved explaining a ‘flame’ to a child.

Instead of getting Ss to merely  answer some specific reading questions on a text, have them explain the main idea of the text so an intelligent child could understand it.

Activity: Critical thinking for language

Ask Ss to consider the commonly confused verbs say, speak, talk & tell and have them use dictionaries to produce flowcharts as responses to guided discovery type questions:

Which two verbs can be used to report someone else’s words?

Which verb is always followed by a noun or a pronoun?

Which verb can be used to give orders and instructions?

Which verb shows two or more people having an informal conversation?

Which verb shows that one person is communicating with a group of people in a formal situation?

Which verb collocates with the following nouns: truth, lie, story, and joke?

Untitled pictureThis flow chart only has three of the questions and I think Edmund provides partially filled versions for Ss to complete. He then challenges them to produce their own flow charts using the remaining questions.

Activity: Visuals 

Describe the picture to Ss without showing it to them (It’s a mysterious dramatic picture. I can see a man, wearing a dark coat and jeans, walking away from me on a ramp that’s going up towards a door in an object. This object is large and has four legs. It’s standing in the middle of a forest. There’s a light coming out from the open door. The man is standing half way up on the ramp. The object is kind of square and red. On the front of it is a symbol and if you look closely, it looks like the letter M) Ask Ss to think about what this object might be and what the light might be. You might want them to draw i.e., a picture dictation and compare their drawings.

Then show them the image and ask them to work in small groups to describe the photo, what the object is normally used for and how the artist has repositioned it. Ask them to discuss their thoughts on the artwork and how the artist might expect his or her audience to react. Then get Ss to decide a title for it and explain why they chose it.



This artwork is by an artist named Slinkachu (who creates startling works full of miniature people) and comes from an Insight course book for upper-intermediate learners.

Activity: Student newspaper headline  

Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund “Pat” Brown.

Write the headline for this story.

Some Ss may not see through to the actual idea of the text and may come up with titles such as “New teaching methods” but others may understand its actual intent “School is ours” and “Liberty has arrived”. So this task could be used for reading comprehension but also to encourage Ss to read critically by evaluating how that information might be significant to them.

Activity: Halo effect

Ask Ss to read the following descriptions and decide what they think of Alan and Ben? Who do they prefer?

Alan: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious

Ben: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent

Alan begins on the positive end of the cline and Ben is the exact opposite but the adjectives are the same. Many Ss may prefer Alan because the first piece of evidence we are presented with may influence how we perceive something – this is called the halo effect. Edmund’s suggestion is to use an Alan-Ben type task to introduce a course book vocabulary exercise; for example get Ss to explore the personalities of Alan-Ben using the following adjectives before doing a more conventional antonym-matching exercise.

Match these adjectives to their antonyms

1. dishonest

2. extroverted

3. hard-working

4. unkind

5. mean

6. serious

7. talkative

8. cowardly

Activity: Persuasive writing

This activity from Insight Upper Intermediate has some strategies for using the language of persuasion.

Repetition: repeating key words and ideas for emphasis

Word order: put information you want to emphasize at the beginning or end of the sentence

Sentence length: shorter sentences are more emphatic. Use them for points you want to emphasize

Examples from real life: giving real examples can make your argument more compelling

Edmund suggested that not all Ss may be ready to think critically and these strategies may go over their heads. Instead, he gives them a simpler format in a sort of planning rubric which seems simple and quite handy. No. 2-4 can be actually be used as sentence stems.

1. Introduce the topic

2. What most people think

3. What most people forget

4. What you need to remember

5. What we want you to do

Activity: Paying for milk 

eye flower weeks

Show Ss these pictures (and not the line graph that accompanies them) and tell them these appeared on the door of a fridge and each week the picture would be different. The fridge was located at a university faculty building where people shared milk for their tea and they were asked to put some coins into a bowl to contribute towards the next bottle of milk. They could contribute as much or as little as they wanted or they could avoid contributing altogether. Would the pictures influence people to put money in? Ask Ss whether the eyes or the flowers would influence people to contribute more money?  The results show that in the week, when there were scary eyes, people gave more money and less money for non-scary eyes and the least for flower weeks. Ask Ss to consider whether scary eyes in other situations would compel them to behave differently.

If you want to know more about critical thinking in the ELT classroom, I highly recommend the free booklet that John Hughes has written on the topic. I know this webinar was a bit of a plug for a course book but I’m genuinely curious about Insight because my Ss will find many of these activities interesting and engaging.

Image attribution: The images in this post are sourced from the slides that were used in the Oxford Webinar Challenging Students to think Critically by Edmund Dudley. 


4 thoughts on “Challenging students to think critically | Webinar summary

  1. Pingback: The little people | An art inquiry creative thinking activity | Immersivities

  2. Pingback: Upcoming webinars for educators | Feb-Mar 2015 | Immersivities

  3. It seems like though you couldn’t finish the webinar despite some efforts, you have made quite out of it sir. You have taken great efforts to pen it down for us sir. Thank you for that. All the activities are simply great. They give a kick to critical thinking. With some other, the picture description part and allowing students to guess is also something that i will try in my class.


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