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A Review of the Criticality Symposium, University of Leeds, 19 December 2019


Natalia Fedorova

Language Centre, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds

KEYWORDS: criticality in disciplines, critical thinking, critical EAP, critical pedagogy, argument and debate

What is criticality? The fact that the ‘Questioning Criticality: What is Criticality in Higher Education?’ Symposium held on 19 December 2019 posed this question indicates the complexity of the issue and the need to continue to share ideas about its meaning and place in higher education, thus attracting a good number of attendees. The symposium set out to cover a range of aspects that embed criticality: Critical EAP, criticality in disciplines, critical thinking and criticality reflections through a range of papers and lightning talks. The programme looked promising, suggesting a wide range of voices representing various contexts within HE. The underlying theme of the symposium was how to develop learners’ criticality both in a narrow context of a classroom or course and a broader context of higher education and society as a whole. A number of talks were particularly relevant to the context of teaching EAP (English for Academic Purposes) with the aim to question current practices and suggest alternative approaches to developing criticality.

Kashmir Kaur, who convened the symposium, began the proceedings with a warm welcome and introducing the theme and its complexity. It is due to its complexity that there were various interpretations of criticality presented at the symposium: from the ability to evaluate and analyse, and identify weaknesses in arguments in academic work, to being critical towards an established system such as an academic institution, a society, or government. It could be argued that all of these are pertinent to the context of EAP, justifying the relevance of the talks focussing on these aspects of criticality.

The first prominent example of the former, more language-focussed, talks was the paper presented by Dr Jonathan Leader of the University of Southampton. He provided interesting insights into his teaching with the SCOPE Framework which stands for ‘Selection, Care, Organisation, Positioning, and Evaluation’. This framework provides steps for the development of a written argument, with a particular emphasis on enabling students to become ‘curators’ and the use of ‘positioning’ which is a way of identifying the types of relationships between the ideas in their writing. I particularly appreciated the display of his ‘Tangle of Potential Connections’ – a visual representation of the thread of an argument which could help learners show links between different authors’ ideas.

Another, very practical, approach to building an argument was demonstrated in the pre-recorded video lecture by Louise Greener, Diana Scott, Andy McKay and Alex Gooch from Durham University – instead of a classical ‘argument – counter-argument – refutation’ - considering the ‘premises’ and ‘conclusion’. In the context of this approach, learners evaluate an argument by questioning whether they can accept the premises, whether the premises lead logically to the conclusion, and whether the author might have neglected important points. It must be noted that it is not only the written argument that is pertinent to EAP but the spoken one too: another presentation given by Natilly Macartney (University of Klagenfurt) was concerned with how an organisation of a structured debate activity could drive an improvement in students’ critical thinking skills. The class activities could include clarification and exemplification of the terms ‘proposition’, ‘opposition’, ‘motion’, and ‘rebuttal’; using the formula ‘idea – evidence – analysis’ to formulate an argument; analysing recorded student debates. According to Macartney, structured debates can encourage students to see criticality as a ‘set of cultural practices’ (Llano, 2015, p.139) and promote ‘intellectual courage, respect for alternative viewpoints, skepticism and seeing both sides of an issue’ (Davies and Barnett, 2015, p.13).

With regards to the broader and more politically driven understanding of criticality, the theme of Critical EAP was rather prominent. Even though, regrettably, Dr Lata Narayanaswamy (University of Leeds) was unable to take part in the symposium with her talk on decolonisation, my interest was satisfied with Dr Lucy Watson’s (University of Southampton) talk  presenting her Critical EAP approach incorporating Sarah Benesch’s ideas (2001) on enabling learners to become agents of social change, Place-Based learning (Sobel, 2004) with the linking of education to the local environment and global issues, and ‘virtual exchange’ (O’Dowd, 2018) entailing telecollaboration between students from different countries. Her message, echoing the ideas put forward by Benesch, was of the importance to create a ‘transformative space’ for learners to engage with and be included in shaping the community and institution they are a part of.

Dr Lucy Watson’s talk was followed by several others inspired by critical pedagogy such as the one given by Antonio Martinez-Arboleda (University of Leeds) who argued against ‘textual bias’ (Horner, 1999) and for the importance of recognising the sociocultural nature of literacy practices. Therefore, echoing Benesch’s ideas, there should be methodology in place fostering student emancipation and contribution to society through gaining better understanding of the lives of people around them. Another talk emphasising the importance of criticality in the current social and political climate was the Skype video presentation by Professor David Webster (SOAS): he challenged the Socratic questioning tradition and argued the futility of ‘modern’ public debate which does not lead to changing anyone’s mind but turns into a self-perpetuating cycle of confirmation bias. I found it to be a striking thought which has far-reaching implications for the teaching of criticality in EAP: how do we approach criticality so that it contributes to a culture of reasoned and constructive dialogue rather than adds fuel to the ‘debate me’ trend?

I think the most significant idea I took away from the symposium is that criticality does not exist in a restricted space of a classroom or a student paper but is a political and social matter and thus should be treated with increased importance. Developing criticality in EAP through the practical approaches presented by the speakers should not simply have the aim of preparing a student for successfully completing assignments in their future degree programme but developing their agency and ability to contribute to social and political change. In the ‘post-truth’ era critical pedagogy is relevant as ever if the culture of constructive criticism and critical consciousness are to traverse the walls of a HE institution to tackle the current societal and political issues as well as issues within the institution itself.

Overall, the Criticality Symposium delivered on the promise on the cover page of its programme to cover various aspects of criticality. The diverse perspectives presented by the speakers definitely contributed to deeper understanding of it in the HE context which was evident in the lively follow-up group discussions of the themes of the event. There is hope that such conversations will continue across higher education in the UK and beyond, as there was certainly an elated atmosphere throughout the symposium and, as it drew to a close, an explicit intention from colleagues to continue to contribute to the questioning of criticality.

Address for correspondence:


Benesch, S. 2001. Critical English for Academic Purposes: theory, politics, and practice. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Davies, M. and Barnett, R. 2015. The Palgrave handbook of critical thinking in higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Horner, B. 1999. The ‘birth’ of ‘basic writing’. In: Horner, B. and Lu, M-Z. eds. Representing the ‘other’. Basic writers and the teaching of basic writing. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, pp.3-29.

Llano, S. 2015. Debate’s relationship to critical thinking. In: Davies, M. and Barnett, R. eds. The Palgrave handbook of critical thinking in higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.139-151.

O’Dowd, R. 2018. From telecollaboration to virtual exchange: state-of-the-art and the role of UNICollaboration in moving forward. Journal of Virtual Exchange. 1, pp.1-23.

Sobel, D. 2004. Place-based education: connecting classrooms and communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society