Teaching critical thinking as part of A level English Lit – Othello
In A level teaching, there was a time when most students in most English Lit classes could speak and write evaluatively and critically, having been stimulated to do so through analysis and discussion of the text. There have been a number of key shifts in recent years, however, that make the position different now-
More target grades and accountability measures
More target grades and accountability measures leading to more spoon-feeding at GCSE
More target grades and accountability measures leading to more spoon-feeding at GCSE leading to more passive pupils
More target grades and accountability measures leading to more spoon-feeding at GCSE leading to more passive pupils, leading to improved grades, so more A level uptake
More target grades and accountability measures leading to more passive pupils, leading to improved grades, so more A level uptake but with essentially weaker groups
More target grades and accountability measures leading to more passive pupils, leading to improved grades, so more A level uptake but with essentially weaker groups containing students who feel insecure about their abilities
So at A level, we now deal with larger groups of students who are weaker, more passive and less secure in their understanding. We have A level target grades and accountability as well….
When faced with a question in an English Lit exam like ‘To what extent is X the cause of Y?’ or ‘Here’s a quotation/point of view…To what extent do you agree..?’ many students struggle to go beyond the level of agreement with the view offered, possibly augmented by a follow-up list of reasons. On any mark scheme, this approach is rarely rewarded – the implication being that students need to be able to evaluate and challenge, assess areas of weakness, identify contradictions and suggest alternative perspectives.
I like to start with discussion – but it can lead to initial resentment: some students are comfortable with intransigence. It’s a defensive stronghold and deters further probing-
“Is Othello proud?”
“Why do you think that?”
“I just do”
“Can you explain further..?
“No. He just is”
This is unacceptable for a number of reasons – maturity, intellect, manners. If I were coaching an NQT, say, at this point I might point them back to the initial question and ask how useful was it as a starting point, but for present purposes, let’s continue…
The discussion, however prickly, can open up areas of absence, both in specific subject knowledge, for example of a text or of key terminology, and/or in ways of thinking more generally (which in this case ALSO means more sophisticatedly). Students need some frameworks to help them explore this vacancy in a controlled, staged, manner, and we would hope also in a way that serves as a model for future application.
As a starting point, I’d lead a more structured discussion, then depending on the class, continue as a whole class, divide into various groups for discussion (proper grouping strategies here – not just a free for all-or-nothing) probably built upon a simple diagram which we’d start by contributing to together, then maybe individually, in pairs, in mixed ability, or friendship groups or ability groups – depending on need. It might become something like this:
I’d draw out the threads into sentences and hope for the students to be more articulate here than previously.
Following this stage, I like to introduce another structure for more evaluative thinking – the use of “if”. Students by this point will have developed from ‘Othello is proud’ to ‘Othello is proud when he is under threat, and particularly in public scenes’. I might have prompted, if needed, with simple additional words like “when” or “and”. But I want to push it further. I’ll have their sentence on the board and then add “If” to the start of it, and ask each of them to quietly write three different endings to the sentence. We might then arrive at – ‘If Othello is proud when he is under threat, and particularly in public scenes, this could be seen as a sign of his vulnerability, rather than his strength’ – and suddenly the depth of thinking is surfaced and a much more authoritative and objective voice is created.
Depending on ability, and in order to consolidate, I might choose for some students at this time to ‘find quotations’ to support part of this point; more able students might be able to ‘find quotations’ for several parts of the point; then to work on how to integrate the quotation with the point – most prefer to follow with the quotation, some are more adept at embedding the quotations more subtley within the sentence – some might be coaxed into breaking up the quotations and the sentence in different ways to create new evaluative wholes.
By this point, the diagram has become a framework for further development. Students are ready for more extended and detailed evaluative work. This is where I introduce Yes/No/Both/Also. Students – again, supported, grouped, paired, or otherwise, according to need – divide all the points into one of the four categories, depending on whether they think it shows agreement, disagreement, a mixture of both (introduce ‘to some extent’ etc, for those who find it hard to juggle contrary views) or something completely different from the original view. From here, we start to move into essay mode – the weaker ones may need sentence starters, even at A level; the stronger students might want to integrate their knowledge of established critical views here.
Shaping opinions and improving the language and structures to express those opinions is part of developing both personally and academically. We expect students to make progress in this as they become more independent. It’s a different story with adults though!