Some thoughts on the digital and the critical in English language learning

I remember in 1996 my brother and I would turn on a computer and run Microsoft Outlook program all night just to get one email from my mother who was in Rhode Island at that time, but if I try explaining that to my 4-year-old nieces, they would think it is one of the fairy tales.  The younger generation are often refereed to as ‘digital natives’ and they will face challenges we can’t even think of right now. But we do need to ask which of the younger generation, where, to what extent. We do live in the new digital world, surrounded (bombarded even) with information, media, news, posts, and chat messages. It not only affects how we communicate – faster, and more global, but also how we process information and consequently learn. It has been observed that our attention becomes more fragmented, and attention span becomes shorter. There is no time to reflect and process information critically, when ‘repost’ and ‘retweet’ is a constant online race.  Many researchers are concerned with this fact: as informational load increases its critical evaluation decreases. That is why there is a need for a new teaching model that fosters critical thinking skills expressed through critical self-awareness, as well as a critical evaluation of information.

My argument is that English as an additional language  lesson content must extend beyond language competence, even communicative competence. We need to focus on media literacy, information literacy, civic literacy, critical literacy, and language proficiency that intertwine and affect language practice. I would challenge the traditional understanding of literacy as the ability to read a text in its classic form. Books, letters, and other publishable media are a printed text; discussion and conversation are a live text; and emails, blogs, and other internet resources are a digital text. Such approach allows teachers to use unconventional resources – from advertisement in a newspaper to protesters’ posters and slogans – as classroom material.

Foreign language teachers use media resources in their classrooms for a variety of reasons. They primarily serve as methodological tools for practicing conversation, listening, vocabulary training, or grammar reference in their most common linguistic and pragmatic function.  Of course the main function of media is to spread information, be it through news programs, documentaries, or analytical programs, but we cannot overlook the fact that media also projects opinions, norms, values, and morals.

Since media shapes students’ opinions in different ways, we must teach them to process this information critically. By examining the ways in which these messages are presented, we also develop learners’ media literacy.

Media literacy should be approached from the theory of critical thought, because it encourages students to question ideologies and everyday realities. Students should understand whose interests are being served by the information they are presented with, evaluate how the information is presented, and be critically literate in order to examine how the text is constructed. Defined in Bloom’s taxonomy cognitive skills of identifying, describing, explaining, analyzing, and evaluating (in this case media information) as well as affective skills of receiving, responding, valuing and characterizing values can be well developed within any educational context, including foreign language education. This will make language education an environment conducive to helping students become confident members of society, who are willing to constructively engage with their community.

Of course these ideas are rooted in Freire’s theory of critical pedagogy that challenges educators to transform students’ ways of thinking in order to question power relations in society, rather than to simply impart knowledge of a certain subject. At the same time, by redefining teacher-student roles and acknowledging students’ valuable experiences and opinions, it encourages an atmosphere of true democracy, influencing students’ behavior outside the classroom. Freire advocates for reflection, and stresses the importance of action in the transformation of society. By implementing Freire’s work in a more specific area of teaching practice – such as the use of media resources in foreign language classes – we can achieve the following goals:

  • Develop students’ listening and speaking skills in a foreign language (language skills);
  • Engage students in a discussion of how the information is presented (language and media skills);
  • Allow students to express their opinions freely, and to argue and debate respectfully (language and civic skills)
  • Encourage students to critically evaluate information, seek out different opinions and resources, and analyze and compare facts (critical, media and civic skills);
  • Empower students to challenge media images and be confident and active in confronting a certain opinion (civic skills)

Along with their linguistic value and civic education potential, media resources, provide infinite possibilities for incorporation into instructional material. These resources are plentiful and can be modified or adapted according to the goals of the class. Texts can be used in reading classes, individual sentences can be used to illustrate grammar rules, speeches and videos can serve as material in conversational classes, and so forth. These teaching practices can create a unique educational environment that could develop students’ critical thinking.

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