A Systematic Approach to Teaching Critical Thinking through Debate

by David Rear
Shibaura Institute of Technology, Japan

The development of critical thinking (CT) skills has become a key goal for educators in first and second language contexts. Teachers in EFL contexts, however, are often constrained by the linguistic skills of their students. This paper outlines a systematic approach towards developing the critical thinking skills of students with relatively low linguistic abilities. It will report on a program designed by the author at a university in Japan, which used a taxonomy of skills drawn up by Facione (1990) to create a course based around debates of social issues. It took students through a six-stage process, showing them how to clarify the nature of a problem, gather and organize appropriate data, evaluate the worth of that data, analyze the data to draw conclusions, express those conclusions clearly in the form of a debate, and finally appraise their performance for future improvement.

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Arriving at a working definition of critical thinking
The cognitive dimension

Until the 1990s, critical thinking was generally discussed in the realm of first language education (e.g. Ennis, 1962; McPeck, 1981). More recently, however, second language theorists and practitioners have also begun to take an interest in the concept, leading to serious debates over both what the term “critical thinking” means and how it might be taught in a second language context. Needless to say, there is no single accepted definition, and the sheer variety of interpretations can sometimes make it hard for teachers to know how to make a start in introducing it to their classes. Ennis (1985) defines CT as “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” (p. 28).  Paul (1984) describes it as “a set of integrated macro-logical skills ultimately intrinsic to the character of the person” (p. 5). Stall and Stahl (1991) found the most popular conception of the term to be the development of “cohesive, logical reasoning patterns and understanding assumptions and biases underlying particular positions” (p. 82). Gieve (1998), meanwhile, states that for students to think critically they must be able to “examine the reasons for their actions, their beliefs, and their knowledge claims, requiring them to defend themselves and question themselves, their peers, their teachers, experts, and authoritative texts” (p. 126).

If teachers are to implement CT training in their classes, it is important to develop a working definition that can be applied to pedagogical materials (and explained to the students) in a practical way. Fortunately, despite the wide variety of definitions, there is broad agreement on what cognitive skills are necessary for becoming a successful “critical thinker.” Bloom’s seminal work of 1956 identified six major cognitive categories, which have provided the basis for future taxonomies. Ennis (1987), for instance, produced a list of twelve key abilities:

Facione (1990), meanwhile, organized a consensus of expert opinion to come up with the six broad categories of interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation. Each category is further broken down into sub-skills, as follows:


Table 1. “Consensus List of CT Cognitive Skills and Sub-Skills” (Facione 1990, p. 6)

Skill Sub-Skills
1. Interpretation categorization, decoding significance, clarifying meaning
2. Analysis examining ideas, identifying arguments, analyzing arguments
3. Evaluation assessing claims, assessing arguments
4. Inference querying evidence, conjecturing alternatives, drawing conclusions
5. Explanation stating results, justifying procedures, presenting arguments
6. Self-Regulation self-examination, self-correction

Facione’s list of cognitive skills provides a workable framework for drawing up a critical thinking course based around organized debates. As will be explained below, each of the six categories defined by Facione can be translated into a specific stage involved with the research, preparation and performance of a debate.

Critical thinking and social awareness
Debate offers a second advantage in that it allows educators to take account of another important aspect of most conceptions of critical thinking: that of social awareness and criticism. Ennis’s (1985) definition of the term as “reasonable and reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” (p. 28 ) implies an emancipatory quality to the concept, a freeing of people’s minds from an unquestioning acceptance of conventional beliefs. Benesch (1993) is even more explicit, seeing critical thinking as “a search for the social, historical, and political roots of conventional knowledge and an orientation to transform learning and society” (p. 546). Paul (1984) argues that the development of cognitive skills for “vocational” or “technical” purposes is only critical thinking “in the weak sense” (p. 5). Critical thinking “in the strong sense” implies “emancipatory reason” and an inclination for people to “free themselves from the self-serving manipulations of their own leaders”.

While we must, as educators, be wary of transplanting our own criticisms of society or government into the minds of our students, it is important to help them develop skills that will allow them to form their own views. Fortunately, the cognitive and socio-critical aspects of critical thinking are distinct and divorced. If students have the ability to analyze arguments, assess claims, query evidence and draw conclusions (Facione, 1990), they also have the tools to evaluate the pronouncements of authorities and to critically examine the society and world in which they live. This is a form of liberation and surely a key goal of education in both first and second language contexts.

Teaching critical thinking through debate

The course this paper will report on sought to recognize this dual nature of critical thinking by developing the cognitive skills necessary for successful critical thinking while simultaneously encouraging the students to look in depth at issues affecting their society and environment. For this reason, debate was thought to be a suitable medium, as it allowed the students to prepare for the discussion of serious topics while gradually building up the skills necessary to do it successfully. It also gave the course a linguistic focus, centered on the language of discussion and agreement – again, functions that the students would find pertinent once they entered the world of work.

Twenty students were enrolled in the course, all third and fourth years studying at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba Prefecture, Japan. They had varying linguistic abilities, ranging from elementary to intermediate, and were split evenly between male and female. The course ran for one thirteen-week semester and met for ninety minutes twice a week. In the first class, the objectives of the course were laid out as follows:

btn_more To develop critical thinking skills by preparing and performing two debates.
btn_more To improve the ability to work successfully in a team.
btn_more To improve oral presentation skills.
btn_more To learn and use language for argument and discussion.

During the course, the students prepared for and completed two debates, each lasting approximately thirty minutes. For the first debate, whose topic was chosen by the teacher, they were given eight weeks to prepare; for the second, whose topic they could choose themselves, they had five weeks. The lengthy preparation time was considered extremely important, as it is unfair to expect students to discuss an issue critically and intelligently without giving them sufficient opportunity to understand it.

For each debate, the students were led through a six-stage process, which echoed the six cognitive competencies detailed above:

1. Identify and clarify the issue (Interpretation)
2. Gather and organize information about the issue (Analysis)
3. Evaluate that information for accuracy and applicability (Evaluation)
4. Draw conclusions from the evidence (Inference)
5. Explain conclusions logically in the form of a debate (Explanation)
6. Critically appraise and examine one’s performance (Self-regulation)

Development of the six skills
The topic of the first debate was this: “Do violent movies, television shows, and video games lead to violent behavior?” This somewhat complex issue was chosen because of the large amount that has been written on it, in research papers, popular magazines and newspapers. Some of the supposed evidence that has been presented for either side is strong and convincing, whilst other parts can be seen as weak and contradictory. It was hoped that the students would eventually be able to judge one from the other.

In the first stage of preparation, the students were asked to discuss whether there was any part of the question they felt was unclear or ambiguous. This was a tough beginning and many students struggled, but eventually certain suggestions were made, most pertinently concerning the question of what “violence” meant. How does one define what is or is not a “violent” movie? Must people die in order for a film to be violent? Is a war film automatically violent? How about a Tom and Jerry cartoon? In this way, they began to see that what might seem like a fairly straightforward issue is, in fact, not straightforward at all. They also saw that before one can go about answering a question, it is often important to define the relevant terms.

The second stage began with the students forming groups of four, in which they would eventually perform their debate. Two students took each side, either based on their genuine opinion or by playing devil’s advocate. They then discussed in their team what kind of information or data they wished to gather, forming a series of questions they felt they needed to answer. They were also given a short article by the teacher containing relevant data, and were shown how to make notes about it by distilling it into its main arguments and supporting evidence. After this, they were given guidance on searching the Internet and on using the electronic database of the university library. Finally, they were sent away to gather evidence that would support their side, either in English or Japanese, depending on preference.

In the third stage, they learned how to evaluate that data for trustworthiness and strength. The motto we adopted was “Be Suspicious!” that is, to be wary of taking information at face value without testing it for certain qualities. They were taught to ask questions of everything they read:

btn_more Is the information based on fact or opinion?
btn_more Can it be expected to be biased or one-sided?
btn_more Is it written by an expert?
btn_more Is it based on well-supported evidence, which is up-to-date and transparent?
btn_more Has it been sufficiently explained?
btn_more Does it come from a reputable source, like an academic journal or a serious newspaper?

They were given practice in appraising certain items of information provided by the teacher, deciding if they felt each one was credible and why. After that, they did the same with the data they had gathered themselves, frequently asking the teacher for guidance when they felt it necessary.

The fourth stage involved planning the debate itself, which was conducted with three speeches on each side: the opening address, the attack and rebuttal, and the summation. The students were required to write the opening address in full, analyzing the information they had gathered in order to create two or three strong arguments supported by reliable data. The speech was then checked by the teacher before being given to the opposing team, who could probe it for weaknesses for their attack. Although ideally in a debate spontaneity would be encouraged by keeping a speech secret beforehand, it was felt that in consideration of the relatively low linguistic abilities of the students, preparation time for the attack was necessary if the debate were to be successful. The attack speech itself, however, was kept secret, so the students were required to defend their arguments impromptu as the debate progressed.

The main focus for the fifth stage was on presentation skills and language. In terms of presentation skills, the importance of eye contact, voice control, and visual aids were stressed, as well as the need to tailor performance and language to the specific audience being addressed. The linguistic element had a triple focus. First, the students were provided with a list of discourse markers that would help them with the overall structure of a speech. Second, they were taught how to organize their paragraphs internally, incorporating expressions to signal topic sentences, reasons, and supporting evidence. Finally, they were given phrases commonly used in formal debates for attacking and refuting arguments. The students were required to practice their opening addresses and attack speeches in front of the teacher, so that individual advice could be given. When all the groups felt they were ready, the debates were held over two class periods.

This left the sixth and final stage: the critical self-appraisal of the students’ performances. During the debate, three types of appraisal were carried out: by the teacher, by the audience, and by the participants themselves. In each case, two main aspects were considered: the content of the debate (clarity and persuasiveness of the arguments, strength and reliability of the supporting evidence) and the quality of its presentation. Each student filled out a self-appraisal sheet and was directed to consider what aspects of their performance they had been pleased or dissatisfied with. These points would then be borne in mind for the second self-chosen debate, with improvements hopefully made.

Second debate
The second debate followed the same six-stage process as the first. However, since each of the five groups was free to choose their own topic, a greater degree of independence was required in the research, preparation and performance of the debates. The teacher assisted the students initially by providing some English background material to their chosen topic, but after that acted in an advisory role, giving support or help when and if the students required it. The students picked topics based on their own interests, most of them pertaining to issues specific to Japan:

btn_more Is the privatization of the post office a good thing for Japan?
btn_more Should Japan reform Article 9 (the ‘peace clause’) of its constitution?
btn_more Should Japan abolish the death penalty?
btn_more Should Japan increase the rate of immigration into the country?
btn_more Is religion a positive influence on the world?

None of the topics was straightforward, but the students were able to work with a good deal of independence, researching information (mainly in Japanese), asking questions of its accuracy, and using it to formulate two or three strong arguments. Although the teacher’s assistance was needed through all stages of the process, the fact that the students had been able to choose the debate topics themselves gave them motivation to work through their own initiative.

Reflections on the course
Student performance in the debates

The complexity of the topics chosen by the teacher and students made the two debates challenging for the students. They were forced to work hard both inside and outside the class in order to prepare and perform the debates to an acceptable standard. One of the major issues they struggled with was finding ways to explain difficult concepts and arguments in language that both they, as debaters, would be able to present comfortably and that their classmates in the audience would be able to understand. As a consequence, the first debates tended to be rather hesitant and dry in presentation, as the performers concentrated on simply carrying out their speeches without considering how those were being received by the audience. It was doubtful at times whether the audience was really following the details of the debate.

For the second debate, therefore, much more effort was made both by the teacher and the students to tackle this problem. A lot of individual help was required, as the students attempted to use their own words at all times instead of relying on sentences and phrases copied down from English source material. Inevitably, given the complexity of the topics they were speaking about, it was necessary for them to utilize some difficult lexical terms which would be beyond the comprehension of their watching classmates. In these cases, the performers drew up bilingual word lists on the board, which they could point to at the relevant moment. This, along with the confidence they had gained from performing the first debate, made the second debates both smoother and more dynamic in presentation.

Student reactions to the course
At the end of the course, the students were asked to fill out an anonymous questionnaire to gauge their reactions to what they had studied. Three questions were judged to be particularly important:

btn_more Did they feel the topic of the first debate was interesting?
btn_more Were they happy with its degree of difficulty?
btn_more What did they feel they had learned on the course as a whole?

The first question was answered with a Likert Scale, from 1 (not interesting at all) to 5 (very interesting). The mean of the scores was 4.4, with the major reason for the high level of student interest being the fact that they saw the topic as relevant to today’s society. The second question was similarly scored on a scale, with by far the most common answer being “difficult but manageable.” Few students felt it was the “right level,” but this was not surprising considering the high degree of complexity involved in the topic. The fact that only one student professed it to be “too difficult” was quite welcome, and perhaps reflective of the amount of time and support that was allocated to them throughout the course.

As to the question of what the students felt they had learned a variety of answers were received here. A typical selection follows:

“I think I could learn how to criticize for information we get and about peoples’ opinions.”

“I couldn’t speak English well, but I became to think it’s fun to speak English with various people.”

“I try to consider a problem in all its aspects and read newspaper more.”

“I learned how to debate, collect data and so on.”

“I think we can get the skill to gather information, and to speak more strongly, and so on.”

“I think many classmates understand a little how to make a Critical Thinking. Also I never forget ‘Be Suspicious!’”

Overall, the course was rated a success, and the students felt they had gained something that would help them in their future studies and careers.

Teacher reflections on the course
Reflecting on the course from the teacher’s perspective, there are a number of points that seem to be important for creating a debating / critical thinking course for relatively low-level students:

btn_more Providing a step-by-step process for preparing debate speeches.
btn_more Giving plenty of time for preparation, both in writing and practicing the speeches.
btn_more Attending to the students on an individual basis – a total of twenty students is probably the optimal maximum for a course of this nature.
btn_more Allowing the students to read each other’s opening speeches before the debate in order that they can find areas to attack.
btn_more Pointing out the importance of audience awareness and helping the students to use language comprehensible both to themselves and their listeners.


Benesch, S.(1993). Critical thinking – A learning process for democracy. TESOL Quarterly, 27(3), 545-547.

Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay.

Ennis, R. (1962). A concept of critical thinking. Harvard Educational Review, 32, 82-111.

Ennis, R. (1985). Critical thinking and the curriculum. National Forum, 65, 28-31.

Ennis, R. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In J. Baron & R. Sternberg (Eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice (pp. 9-27). New York: Freeman and Company.

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

Gieve, S. (1998). Comments on Dwight Atkinson’s ‘A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 32(1), 123-129.

McPeak, F. (1981). Critical thinking and education. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Paul, R. (1984). Critical thinking: Fundamental to education for a free society. Educational Leadership, 42(1), 4-14.

Paul, R. (1993). Critical thinking – what every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world. California: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Stall, N.N., & Stahl, R.J. (1991). We can agree after all! Achieving consensus for a critical thinking component of a gifted program using the Delphi Technique. Roeper Review, 14(2), 79-88.

About the Author
David Rear is an EFL lecturer at Shibaura Institute of Technology, Tokyo. He received Masters degrees from Cambridge University and Essex University in the UK, and is currently working towards a PhD in Applied Linguistics. He is interested in discourses of critical thinking in Japan.