Critical thinking in a Vietnamese tertiary English as a foreign language context : current practices and prospects

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This thesis explores critical thinking practices in the relatively under-researched context of Vietnamese tertiary English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classrooms. Drawing on Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy and Barnett’s (1997) domains of criticality, critical thinking is defined in this study as the capacity for students to use their cognition to understand, interpret and critique received knowledge, to question their own understanding and assumption(s), and then to take action in their own life-worlds and beyond. This qualitative study with a case study design contributes to the contested evidence of critical thinking practices in an Asian EFL context. Data were collected from two field trips involving 20 observations of two class types: 14 (more elementary) skills-based and six (relatively advanced) content-based classes. Observations were complemented by semi-structured interviews with eight teachers and 22 students and document analysis. Thematic analysis was used to interpret the data. Findings revealed that the participants equated critical thinking with expressing personal opinions, and with a right/wrong dichotomy. They subjected others’ opinions rather than their own to criticism. The study found that critical thinking was differentially integrated in the teaching of the skills-based and content-based classes, and that the students’ engagement with critical thinking differed between whole-class learning and group discussions, and according to their ability to relate to given texts. Critical thinking practice in the context was shaped by the attitudes and understandings of the teachers and students themselves, examination regimes, national cultural norms (e.g. face-saving, respect for teachers), and what might be deemed universal human classroom behaviours (e.g. authority, peer pressure). The findings imply that critical thinking can be implemented in this Asian EFL context provided certain conditions are met, such as sufficient scaffolding, appropriate task difficulty level, relevant material choice, and suitable classroom arrangement. It is also inferred from the study that the content-based classes, aiming to provide a socio-cultural understanding of English-speaking countries are more conducive to developing critical thinking than the skills-based classes, which aim to develop students’ language skills. The application of a combination of Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy and Barnett’s (1997) domains of criticality opens up a new way of understanding critical thinking practices in a specific context. The study recommends consistent support for critical thinking at national and institutional levels through curriculum design, the examination and assessment systems, and at the classroom level, through pre-service and in-service teacher training, as well as incremental incorporation of critical thinking from the onset of EFL courses.
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