Occasional Papers: Cognition and Critical Thinking in CLIL

By Dr David Rear

The development of critical thinking (CT) skills is widely recognised as one of the most important aims of education. In the language classroom, CT poses a particularly demanding challenge. Language mastery plays a key role in reasoning, as anyone who has attempted to argue cogently in a foreign language can attest, and we should not underestimate the difficulty of displaying critical thinking as a non-native speaker. In this regard, CLIL offers teachers and students a valuable opportunity since, under the popular 4Cs model, language learning goes hand in hand with content and cognition (Coyle, Hood & Marsh, 2010). They can proceed in step with one another, so that as students deepen their knowledge of content, they correspondingly develop both their language and thinking abilities.

So, what is critical thinking and how can it be taught in the CLIL classroom? To answer these questions, it is useful to turn to taxonomies of critical thinking that attempt to break this rather amorphous concept down into specific teachable skills. Bloom’s seminal work of 1956 identified six major cognitive categories, which have provided the basis for future taxonomies. Ennis (1987), for instance,set out a list of twelve key abilities: focusing on a question, analysing arguments, asking and answering questions of clarification, judging the credibility of a source, observing and judging observation reports, making and judging deductions, making and judging inductions, making value judgments, defining terms, identifying assumptions, deciding on an action, and interacting with others. Following this, Facione (1990) came up with six broad categories of interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation with each category further broken down into sub-skills. In more recent years, Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) added a Knowledge Dimension to these lists, referring to the skills we need in order to understand, interpret and apply content knowledge. This has made it a particularly valuable resource for CLIL curricula (Coyle, Hood & Marsh, 2010).

While such taxonomies of skills have not been universally accepted (Norris, 1992), the advantage they offer to CLIL teachers is that they provide a framework in which CT can be taught in an explicit and deliberate fashion. There can be a tendency in academic courses, language or otherwise, to assume that critical thinking is being developed even when learners are not carrying out activities specifically designed to improve their thinking skills. For example, directing students to discuss the content they have been learning might exercise their thinking faculties to a degree, but without some way to monitor and improve the quality of such discussion, the effect may be limited. Likewise, in a CLIL project we might have our students gather and present information on a topic; however, unless we show them how to gather information effectively, how to evaluate it for reliability, how to root out bias and unsupported opinion, and how to draw up well-reasoned arguments, we might simply be reinforcing sloppy habits.

Teaching critical thinking explicitly as a set of discrete but closely interrelated skills might not necessarily lead to better thinking. There is a perennial debate in the literature about how well CT skills transfer from one academic context to another (Moore, 2011). However, at the very least our learners will come out of the course with a clear understanding of what CT entails and how it can be applied to their work within and beyond their academic studies. In a country like Japan, where critical thinking as a term is little used and its importance rarely emphasised at most levels of schooling (Amano 1999), this is a worthwhile objective.


Amano I. (1999). Daigaku: Chosen no Jidai [Challenges to Japanese Universities], Tokyo: Tokyo University Press.

Anderson L. & Krathwohl D. eds. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.New York: Longman.

Bloom B. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay.

Coyle D, Hood P. & Marsh D. (2010). CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning. Cambridge: CUP.

Ennis R. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In J. Baron & R. Sternberg (eds.): Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice, 9-27. New York: Freeman and Company.

Facione P. (1990). Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus – The Delphi Report, California: California Academic Press.

Moore T. (2011). Critical Thinking and Language: The Challenge of Generic Skills and Disciplinary Discourse. London: Bloomsbury.

Norris S. (1992). Introduction: the generalizability question. In S. Norris (ed.): The Generalizability of Critical Thinking: Multiple Perspectives on an Educational Ideal, 21-37. New York: Teachers College Press.

David Rear is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Engineering in Shibaura Institute of Technology in Japan. He completed his Doctoral Degree in Applied Linguistics. His most recent publication is: The dilemma of critical thinking: conformism and nonconformism in Japanese education policy In T. Isles (2012) (ed.): Researching Twenty-First Century Japan: New Directions and Approaches for the Electronic Age, p. 119-137. Lexington Books: Maryland, US. He is interested in discourses of critical thinking in Japan.
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