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Educator Serene Martin: How I Teach Students To Be Critical Thinkers

If you’re considering putting your children through the GCE A-Level route, you can expect that they will spend a significant amount of time and effort on preparing for the General Paper (“GP”), a compulsory subject for all local junior college students.

There are two components to the GP—an argumentative essay of 500 to 800 words, and a comprehension paper. The 2016 syllabus states that students are expected to demonstrate a “broad and mature understanding of a range of subject matter, from the humanities and culture as well as science and technology, including current affairs, issues of global significance, and issues of significance to Singapore.”

The key skills required to tackle GP-related questions, particularly the essay questions, are active reading and critical thinking. Can parents help cultivate these skills in their children before they enter junior college, so as to ensure a smoother transition? We spoke to Serene Martin, an English/GP tutor with nine years of junior college teaching experience, for her thoughts and tips.

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Were you a critical thinker before you became a GP teacher?
Back when I was in secondary school and junior college, we were asked to read many articles but the discussions focused mostly on what the articles were about. So what we picked up at that point was content mastery, and we were largely left on our own to figure out the specifics of constructing an argument. I learned critical reading and thinking skills intuitively, through reading and writing, especially at the university level, and my experience as a GP teacher definitely honed these skills.

As a GP teacher, how did you help your students to engage with the material they read? Is there a process to this?
For every article that we read, I taught my students to annotate the main arguments or points of each paragraph along the margins of the text, or on a piece of paper. By doing this, they could see how the points added up to an overall perspective or line of argument.

I also got them to look out for diverging perspectives within an article, and to identify the writer’s views (the author’s “voice”) as well as “opposing” views. In addition, we looked at the supporting details that writers used to strengthen their arguments and talked about whether or not these details were convincing and credible.

What did your students find most challenging?
Many of my weaker ability students saw reading as a mere uncovering of content; to them, the chief task of reading was information gathering, rather than a chance to decode arguments and perspectives. On occasion, they struggled to understand the linguistic techniques that writers use to build cogent arguments, and because of this, they would sometimes miss key ideas and instead cite supporting details as main ideas.

How did you help your students to overcome these challenges?
We deconstructed arguments found in essays and articles, and these provided a guide for my students when they were doing their own writing. To make practice engaging, and to demonstrate that formulating an argument is a skill with real-life value, I asked my students to identify elements of argumentative structure in video clips, documentaries, and even commercials. I also had them write essay outlines so they could map out the structure of their arguments—I looked for clear topic sentences reflecting supporting and opposing arguments. A trick I found useful was asking students to use different coloured ink for different essay components; this helped to visually reinforce the required structure.

Apart from building up an argument, we focused on rebuttals and ways of “tearing down” an opposing view. (Parents and students can refer to this link for more information on rebuttal techniques; the techniques mentioned are used in the context of debates, but they are just as relevant for written assignments.) One way to rebut an argument is to identify logical fallacies within the argument and elaborate on these, in order to prove that the argument is not valid.

How can parents help their children to develop critical thinking skills without resorting to tuition or enrichment classes?
I think parents should have open discussions with their kids about current affairs-based issues that go beyond what the topic is about. Read with your kids, observe how writers build arguments, and question the validity of what you’re reading. Let your kids know why you agree or disagree with certain views, and encourage them to articulate their viewpoints too.

Ideally, to be effective guides, parents should be confident of understanding argumentative structures and the dynamics of critical reasoning, and there are a wealth of resources available online. Besides online material, there are a number of low-cost or even free critical reasoning courses offered by online educational platforms such as Udemy.

To keep kids engaged, discussions shouldn’t revolve around assessment books or exam papers. Use authentic texts ranging from news articles and blogs to movie plots and song lyrics. This real-world exposure makes learning and thinking much more enjoyable.

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