Posted by: Principal/Editor | March 1, 2010

Critical literacy pedagogy:How helpful would this be to School Leaders of 21st century schools?

Thinking Schools Learning Nation (TSLN): Sites of contestation and negotiation

It has been commented quite frequently that the Singapore government takes no chances[1] in terms of promoting its policies which includes the objective of ensuring that its education system is top notch and world class.

With the demands of the 21st century, the nation embarked on the bold TSLN initiative. One of the goals of which was to engender among Singapore students critical and creative thinking.

Koh underscores that the TSLN initiative which was Singapore’s response to challenges of the new 21st century economy, may not be enough to develop “creativity and critical capacity”.[2] Koh suggests instead that teaching critical literacy pedagogy may be a step towards arriving at a framework to accomplish the goal of nurturing critical and creative minds.  He acknowledges that the culture and context of Singapore has its unique complexities, as such, introducing critical literacy pedagogy “will be a site for contestation and negotiation’. [3]

Critical Literacy Pedagogy: Approaches towards reading and teaching

In an interesting presentation made by Dr. Andreotti , explaining several key concepts of an ongoing project entitled Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry (OSDE), she shares her insights on critical literacy. [4] Among the interesting points she raises is what she refers to as six essential questions to be aware of in reading text in order to arrive at Critical Literacy:

1.             Where is this coming from?

2.             What are the implications of these thoughts?

3.             How could this be thought of otherwise?

4.             Who decides?

5.             In whose “name” is this decision made?

6.             For whose benefit?

Koh points out that critical thinking, the lynchpin of TSLN, might be “too narrow” since one of its main objectives is to foster “creative problem-solving”. What he suggests is promoting critical literacy that fundamentally encourages students to “challenge taken-for-granted meanings” [5] The six essential questions raised by Andreotti can serve as the foundation for engaging learners to think of ways not only to “problem-solve” but perhaps to challenge established premises of problems or issues.

Starting points for reflection

Let us reflect on the “conversation” consisting of the points raised by Koh, particularly the Singapore context as a site of contestation and negotiation in terms of introducing critical literacy pedagogy in schools and Andreotti’s six main questions for Critical Literacy.  For school leaders at the forefront of addressing the challenges of the 21st century, how important is critical literacy pedagogy as ways of engaging students for the 21st century?  Do you agree with the arguments of Koh who points out the limitations of “creative problem solving”?  Do you find value in adopting Critical Literacy Pedagogy in schools? Taking note of the culture and context of Singapore where voicing out critical ideas particularly in the form of political commentary as “practically impossible,” [6] are there spaces for critical literacy to be fostered in the education system? Is there a paradox between the need to nurture critical and creative citizens and where political activities do “not deserve to be encouraged”? [7]


[1] Mutalib, H. (2004). Singapore’s Quest for a National Identity: The Triumphs and Trials of Government Policies In A. Pakir & C. K. Tong (Eds.), Imagining Singapore (2nd ed.). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

[2] Koh, A. (2002). Towards a critical pedagogy: crating ‘thinking schools’ in Singapore. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 34(3), 255-264.

[3] Ibid., p. 263

[4] Andreotti, V. (2007). Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry (OSDE): Critical Literacy [Electronic Version], from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRDp6FNynm0

[5] Koh. A., Ibid, p. 259.

[6] Ho, K. L. (2000). Citizen Participation and Policy Making in Singapore: Conditions and Predicaments. Asian Survey, 40(3), 436-455.

[7] Vasil, R. K. (1984). Governing Singapore. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

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Responses

  1. My first comment on this is a quote from Jason Tan and Gopinathan, “Government leaders are united in lamenting the apparent lack of creativity and thinking skills among students and members of the workforce. In a sense, it is ironic that the
    government is aggressively promoting wideranging changes in the schools even as it basks in Singapore’s success in the Third
    International Mathematics and Science
    Study—a study that reportedly was “not made
    up of typical examination questions that our pupils are familiar with. [The test items]
    assessed them on creative problem-solving
    skills and their ability to respond to openended
    questions.” A cursory glance at the subject syllabuses published by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate
    (the body that organizes the bulk of the
    secondary and preuniversity examinations for
    Singapore students) reveals careful attention to
    the cultivation of higher-order thinking and
    analytical skills. These include selection,
    organization, and interpretation of data, the
    recognition of patterns and deduction of
    relationships in data, critical reading, detecting
    logical fallacies in arguments, evaluating the
    reliability and accuracy of material, and
    applying knowledge to problems presented in
    a novel or unfamiliar manner. It would appear
    that teachers have become adept in drilling
    and coaching their students to answer these
    higher-order questions very skillfully.”

    Two conclusions that can be drawn from this is that Singapore Teachers are highly skilled at teaching higher order thinking skills. Therefore why are we “Unlearning” our skills. The second conclusion is Singapore teachers epitomises the Innovative, Creative and Critical Thinkers as they have discovered a way to drill and coach higher order thinking skills – something that still troubles many nations. Either conclusion does not support the statement that Singapore students or the produce of Singapore education – us, are lacking in analytical and critical thinking skills.

  2. My second comment is that I fully support encouraging critical literacy in our education system. Infact, it has always been alive but subtle. To name a few examples, teaching philosophy, Knowledge Inquiry, Religious Knowledge, use of PBL, Independent schools, autonomous schools etc. I believe the inherent problem is as mentioned ‘Control’. You can have critical thinking, creativity and analytical abilities but within well drawn boundaries. Therefore, reinventing pedagogy and curriculum design cannot resolve the problems akin to the allegory of the cave story by Plato.

  3. Critical literacies (Knowledge andInquiry, Teeory of Knowledge, Philosphy for Children, Community of Inquiry) are essential to the education we provide our students. They are critical in our quest to develop thinkers, leaders and pioneers from our students. In singapore, these critical literacies are essential however I do feel that they do seem to be the domain of the elite. Are these skills not necessary for all our students?

  4. During our group discussion on Koh’s article, we realise that the concept of critical thinking is unclear and hence not easy interpreting what it is when cascaded down to schools. School leaders and practitioners try to operationalise the ideas according to their own understanding and interpretation over the years. Perhaps over the years, the idea of critical thinking has been almost synonymous with creative problem solving, especially at the primary level, and more so at the lower primary level, where ideas have to be simplified for the young minds. Hence, practitioners craft problems which are sometimes over-simplified and are not authentic, with the good intention of teaching thinking skills. It is usually not necessarily ‘critical’. I think Koh’s proposal of Critical Literacy has its values. Teachers have to start making a more concerted and conscious effort to create an awareness for critical literacy if we were to equip our students for the future. Teachers’ capacity to guide students in this area has to be built first. Though an uphill task, not only about building teachers’ capacity but creating critical literacy among students, it is not ‘practically impossible’. I was heartened by the insights from the visit to NUS High School for Mathematics and Science. As an ‘high end’ school to develop excellence in the holistic development of a student, I can see systemic structures in placed to support this culture. Among these are that many assumptions are challenged. Teacher-pupil interaction, facilities and pedagogical approaches move along to support this environment as well.

  5. My thoughts on Aaron Koh’s article:

    Thinking is a way of life. I would subscribe to the belief of thinking as a critical social practice. Thinking is part and parcel of life, the difference in application of thinking in one situation versus another depends very much on the complexity of the issue at hand. Some issues need no thinking. Eg. What you want to eat, what you want to do with free time. People are not perplexed on how to address ‘simple’ issues in life. For more complex issues, sometimes one person’s thinking cannot resolve the complexity, unless the assumption is that the person is thinking at multiple perspectives. Therefore, one aspect of the thinking culture we need to promote in our students would be the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others – others that are very much different from you in terms of expectations, roles and values. The important aspect to develop in our students, in my opinion, is the ability to consider multiple perspectives.

    Another thought that comes to mind after reading Allan Koh’s article is that to operationalise thinking as a philosophy (or policy) will mean different outcomes for different people. In the field of education, thinking in the curriculum could mean the fulfillment of number of hours mandatory to “teach” thinking. For others, it would mean the flexibility to introduce problem-solving, scenario-planning, thinking-out-of-the-box opportunities for individual students or student teams to address these opportunities and discover themselves and the solutions they are capable of finding. To achieve meaningful operationalising of “thinking”, I guess the key lies with the teacher. He or she is in the capacity to influence the direction and learning atmosphere of the class by providing guidelines on reasonable interaction or engagement with the classmates, as well as the context to allow for such interaction or engagement.

    Challenges need to be considered. Different sets of challenges will pose to different ‘type’ of schools. There are schools that are endowed with resources (expertise, finance) and even students from better social and intellectual backgrounds that allow such schools to have less to overcome in terms of technical constraints (writing skills, comprehension of basic literacy). Yet there are those with the basic literacy ability to read and write well. Naturally for this latter group of students, to stretch them on the path of critical literacy would seem more smooth-sailing. But having said that, the choice to develop our students to be traditional readers, critical readers, or readers with critical literacy will depend on the teachers. While Koh argues that the ‘lynchpin’ of TSLN is critical thinking, I would say that the ‘lynchpin’ of students is the belief system of the teacher whose hand nurtures these students.

    For the group of students who seem to be grappling even with simple writing and reading, to not expose them to the possibility of critical literacy is a graver sin than the students’ pre-diagnosed limitations from the on-set. The belief system of such teachers is already one of a defeatist mindset. Who are we to decide the fate of the students, other than to do justice to expose every little bit of skills and mentality for critical literacy for the minds to blossom? For the group of students who are much more linguistically and language able, the danger is to do less due to pre-conceived notion that these students already know much and do much.

    Therefore, my take in terms of promoting thinking students and helping them be better thinkers in every worthy sense of the word lies not in pre-judging the child, or the students that go through our hands, but to help them reach their maxim – to appreciate traditional reading to understand the content of what is said, how it is said and why it is said. Secondly, it is to help them reach the maxim of appreciating critical thinking – the context of the writing and the purpose of the writer in achieving certain outcomes in the readers. And last but not least, it is to help students acquire critical literacy as a way of life – to be able to question assumptions and know where they are heading, in the hope that new knowledge can come about as a result of using a futuristic lens to probe deeper into how the meaning of the text matters to the reader, and what he or she can make out of it.

    I teach Social Studies in my school and I have been doing that for the past five years. My school is an autonomous school with an all-express cohort of students with an average aggregate cut-off of 237. It may seem comfortable to state these students in my school are not that bad after all in that at least we do not have students who are in normal academic or normal technical stream. It may also be reasonable to state that these students also have reading inadequacies and grapple with language issues just like any other schools, especially since my school does not belong to the independent school league.

    In teaching students about the subject, I find myself learning more about the way my colleagues and I teach and the need to respond to a better way of teaching from the students’ behaviour and responses reflecting their level of engagement in relation to the degree of thinking. In one component of the Social Studies syllabus, there is the emphasis to help students acquire source-based question skills. These skills are namely ‘inference’, ‘comparison’, ‘reliability’, ‘utility’ and ‘proving’. I realized that students come back with more questions when we superficially try to teach them the technical steps to writing out an answer meant for an ‘inference’ question or for any of the other skills. Worse, they come back repeating the mistakes made in previous assessment papers, as somehow, the thinking culture has not permeated, the understanding on the ‘power’ of the meaning of the name of the skill has not been gained. Some students might even argue that the teacher has not taught them the skills, or question why a similar thinking skill, when applied in certain contexts, gains them full marks, but in other instances, they fail to get any marks at all. What has gone wrong?

    In analyzing students’ responses and written answers, and through conversations with them during remedials, I realized that what the students need to acquire is not the knowledge of the skill, how it works, why it works. Perhaps that would be referred to as traditional reading of the teaching by the students? The students are not at fault in this. And I would add that neither are the teachers. The enacted curriculum would determine the outcomes and standards of such outcomes. If the teachers have taught in such a manner where there is emphasis on knowing the technicalities of how the thinking skills work, the students would learn that way. The teachers’ assumption that resulted in our curriculum delivery of this nature may be the underestimation of students and that they cannot handle higher-order critique of texts. The latter does not refer to more sophisticated texts, with more difficult vocabulary and elegant form of writing. The latter refers to the process of eliciting responses from the students about what they are getting from the texts. What the teacher needs to do is to raise questions appropriately to stretch the higher order thinking. There is a need to move from traditional reading to critical reading on the part of the students, and the person to facilitate that to happen is the teacher in the class. The key to do that lies in the questions the teacher can ask. It has to probe their understanding to reach a higher order of thinking.

    Therefore, I would support the need for teachers to move from helping students to read, to helping them read critically. For this critical reading or thinking to occur, it would require the careful selection of texts and putting them together to help the students make sense of the context of the case study through active application with understanding of the source-based skills. Before we can students to decode the text and understand the purpose of the author, the placing of the text in terms of the content it offers, and the nuances of meaning coming from it, the teacher has to spend the planning time to decode first.

    But can the teacher do even more, as in towards critical literacy? Can the teacher allow students’ own interpretations of what they are reading? Personally, after reading Aaron Koh’s article as well as watching the youtube presentation by Dr Andreotti, critical literacy is not a higher level of response to thinking, after traditional thinking and critical thinking. I see critical literacy as being complete in helping readers think. Students can be encouraged to embrace and achieve critical literacy, as long as they are able to substantiate their personal point of interpretation and view with evidence from what they are reading. Are there spaces for critical literacy to be fostered in the education system? I certainly would attest to the need for creation of such spaces, which are not necessarily difficult to find. In the discussion of issues covered in the humanities classroom, I see a strong placing for critical literacy. In the exploration of issues on ethics, creation and technology in science and mathematical fields of educations, critical literacy is and should be encouraged so as to stretch the students into thinking variedly on the issue at hand, and derive at appreciating the existence of multiple perspectives to the issue, yet having one preferred stand in the matter of the issue.

    In the midst of the thinking programme being debated furiously among academics over its form and substance, the bottom line for an educator like myself is to remember that I would not want to nurture students who at the end of the day, are ignorant minders of their own business, or busybodies who argue for the sake of arguing without thoughtfully considering the merits, cons and future orientation of the varied viewpoints.

  6. As we enter into the age of 21st century, the world is ever more connected due to globalisation. This is evident in the recent Japan Quake and Tsunami and the uprise in the Middle East whereby its impact is felt not only domestically but globally with great complexities and uncertainities.

    Critical literacy advocates the search for authencity of the source, assumptions, implications and the challenge to view issues differently. These are crucial skills for our future generation to find their direction amidst the chaos of complexities and uncertainities in the modern world.

    Critical literacy is definitely essential for 21st century. Most “elite” schools have already embarked on this journey of developing critical literacy through Knowledge Inquiry or Theory of Knowledge in the International Baccalurate Programme. However, the development of critical literacy in students is not commonly observed in most neigbourhood schools. How do we enable the development of this literacy to be more pervasive to benefit the larger students popluation?

    I opine that development of critical literacy should not just reside in elite schools. However, teachers and school leaders may have to examine or innovate pedagogies that will develop critical literacy which suits the students’ cognitive level.

    As a nation, we are open for differences in views about political issues so long as it does not threaten our social cohesion and nation-building effort. With the development of critical literacy, I hope that it will bring about more vibrancy in the political scene, especially when the views are put across in a logical and balanced way that seek improvement, and anchored in moral values.

  7. I want to further explore on Chui Eng’s post on ciritcal thinking for neighbourhood schools. Typically(and this may be a generalisation), a neighbourhood seconday school would have all the streams)express, normal, technical). The challenge is how to raise the thinking of the child beyond only survival issues. For children from low income families, it is even more crucial to teach them critical thinking, to raise their thinking beyond the bread and butter issues that they are familiar with as these are the issues their parents are struggling with.

    The key challenge for teachers then is how to contextulised critical thinking skills for students in this environment, how to help students see critical thinking skills as a set of skills that they are familiar with and need to have. Basically, how to help change the mindsets of students using critical thinking skills.

    The education landscape varies from one school to another, one family to another. The urgent issue that has to be resolve is how to teach critical thinking skills well to all students and how to ensure this remains with them after they leave school.

  8. Critical literacy is the art of discovering underlying messages. Being able to discover forms part of the challenge and being able to vocalize it another. In my opinion the latter is a bigger challenge for educators in societies that run with high power distances. Critical literacy then becomes a tool that empowers learners. Should this be reality what will the implication be on society? Perhaps power distances will be eroded and a movement towards sharing knowledge vis-à-vis creation of learning organizations be encouraged. It will be a great tool for starters to engage students in the English language. Comprehension exercises at lower levels and case studies at higher levels could be the first steps to developing critical thinking. Implementing this will prove stressful for the teachers. However if it is positioned as a way of life and not as a program that has to be delivered and results tested then perhaps implementing it even in the local context becomes probable. The six questions then become building blocks in a student’s mental model. A paper by Pamela J & Karen S (2003) Becoming Critical: Moving toward a Critical Literacy Pedagogy an Argument for Critical Literacy, present the many concerns of teachers over taking this approach. My belief that such concerns will be persistence in the local context as well and encouraging students to take the role of “troublemakers” by asking the WHY-will be a limited one.

  9. I believe critical literacy skills should be taught in tandem with content and information.

    While it is undesirable for learners to master content without critical analysis, we are equally irked by students (or even political netizens) who criticise without getting the facts corroborated. Some teachers at the JC are already lamenting at the shallowness of views of students of courses like Knowledge and Inquiry and Project Work. This comes about when we over-emphasise form over substance.

  10. I have always believed that it is important to teach critical thinking skills. The TSLN focus as reflected by the TLLM initiatives in schools seems to be largely on creative output and teaching processes rather than on the development of critical thinking skills in individual pupils. Having read Koh’s article, I am somewhat convinced that the teaching of critical literacy would be an effective way to achieve this. Pupils need to challenge “taken for granted meanings”.

    However, the view that the expression of public opinion on political matters is “impossible” is misrepresented. This, I believe, on the contrary, is encouraged. However, in expression our opinions, the onus is on us to discern whether we are including any “misinformation”, and “falsehood”, and that we must be ready to justify our views in “well-meaning ways” with respect for authority. (Words in quotes are from Ho’s article). This expectation is not unreasonable. Unfortunately, perhaps because of our spoon feeding, and exam-oriented culture, I think there are not too many people who are able to articulate their thoughts with such wisdom and tact. The achievement of this quite ironically seems to lie in the teaching of critical literacy, but more importantly in conjunction with character education.

    The age of the Internet, the overwhelming amount of information (political or otherwise) it brings and the anonymity it allows, make this need all the more urgent. Visit online political and news forums, and you will see reckless comments, quotes taken out of context, overgeneralizations, and disparaging remarks. At the other end of the spectrum, you will also see many individuals who are too ready to accept arguments based on the source rather than the merits. This too, is not healthy.

  11. The precepts of critical literacy pedagogy to engage students are important. There are definitely limitations associated with the ‘creative problem solving approach’. Obviously, there are spaces for critical literacy to be fostered in the education system. And it is already being done.

    Lately, I have been looking at my son’s Upper Secondary History textbook. I was delighted that history of World War 2 is now presented in a way that engages the student to draw inferences from comics, propaganda posters, government brochures and samples of official correspondences.

    However, there was another textbook which was concurrently used by the school in the learning of the history of Singapore. From what I gathered from our conversation, he was not too happy with his class discussions and the assessment questions set on Singapore’s Pre-Independence and Merger History. He critically gave my husband and I his anecdotal interpretation of how the ‘critical literacy pedagogy’ was taught and applied but the selected sources nonetheless was leading the students to an obvious pre-determined answer.

    Isn’t this a paradox? Critical literacy pedagogy in the teaching of Singapore history to the students seemingly is best applied to evaluate a social context outside of Singapore. It is always easier to psycho-analyse others critically rather than ourselves. Although Singapore’s social and cultural context has opened up lately, the impetus for change seems to have been driven more by social network sites on the Internet and populace dissatisfaction, rather than a learned philosophy/ habit to examine critical perspectives. This is perhaps where the crux of the issue lies. It is not the failure of ‘what deserves to be encouraged’ but rather a failure of the society as a whole to engage critically.

    There is a need to equip our students with this 21st century skill – Critical literacy. However before we can do so successfully, there needs a general consensus amongst policymakers and all stakeholders (parents inclusive) to acknowledge that critical literacy pedagogy is not just a matter of space or opportunity confined within the school curriculum but more of a matter of habit, philosophy and a way of life that should be embraced. Are we ready for the slew of critical questions coming our way? Are we ready to be less defensive and learn together with the children? Food for more thought.

  12. Yes, in Singapore, National Education content is infused in subjects like History, Geog, and Social Studies. Some people argue that it is in these subjects where we see how education is used as a political tool of the State. And not just in Singapore. It is a worldwide phenomenon. History texts all around the world are sites of contestation – especially where curriculum is highly centralized. They tend to downplay a nation’s flaws or misconduct, and emphasize only their achievements. (Perhaps except in America where certain history textbooks were criticized because they castigated their own country too much for slavery in the 1800s!) In the case of the former, there is no lie but a matter of providing a more balanced picture. Hence, history texts can be nationalistic, so long as it is based on well-grounded facts. Thus, what I think is critical is to teach our kids to differentiate between 4 levels: mere factual errors, unbalanced picture, biases (ideological/cultural etc…) or pure myths in history textbooks. Factual errors can be forgiven. Lack of a balanced picture or ideological biases need to be identified and corrected. (Usually these are seen in the selective omission of important facts such as people who had played important roles in the nation but not mentioned because of political reasons). However, in these cases, it also entails acknowledging those parts of the picture which are true. But historical myths should be denounced because they are a total false picture of reality. (e.g. the country did not commit any war atrocities when all evidence points to it). I think in the case of Singapore’s history textbooks, I think it is more the case of allowing discussion for a “more balanced picture”.

  13. The 1979 Goh Report and efficiency-driven education system indicated that Singapore schools have always been the ground to produce resources for the economy. Singapore education system is economy driven. We have seen many successes but with the demands of the new economy in the 21st century, the education system has to move to meet the expectations. The establishment of the TSLN initiatives sought to do just that. TSLN is based on a set of policies about economic survival and staying rooted to the nation. We have somewhat seen its positive impact. Our economy has been able to ride the global economic waves because our political leaders have been somewhat successful in making crucial decisions. Cases of bond-breakers and brain drain are not as rampant. In fact, many westerners are moving to the East, Singapore in particular, because here is where there is economic growth. The key factor that drives that economic vibrancy is the sound decisions made by the political players in Singapore. Making the right decisions at the right time is crucial because there are many factors at play in the world economy at any particular time. I suppose, although the leaders may not have been right all the time, we have stood the ground due to our strong foundations.

    While I agree with Koh on the grounds that applying creative problem solving is limited in view of the demands of the new 21st century economy, creative problem solving skills have served us well in being pragmatic and address the key root problem in many situations. However, we know that in the new economy, the complete the cycle of to react and solve a problem may not be robust enough in situations where multidimensional problems come fast and furious. We have to anticipate and perhaps even define problems before they even surface. Here is where critical literacy approaches may prove useful. Critical literacy pedagogy is transferrable and it can even be applied in the review of school policies or innovations and, as our society matures, to critically comment on our political scenario and bring out the quality living in Singapore.

  14. Bringing the discussion to a more macro level, is our system of governance and the senior managment team ready for critical literacy?

    I would suggest that our current system rewards those who are more structural and toe the line. The critical thinkers, those who challenge the norms and those who do agree with the current system would usually be deemed as “trouble-makers”, aren’t they?

    Reflecting as a Department Leader, if we have to pick our team of officers to fulfill a task, how many of us would pick officers who would constant set to disagree with the discussion and present alternatives which would not be the norm or would we select officers whom we know would work well with us?

    Speaking from a “field operation”, we have seen how many of these people were being side-lined as either “not ready for leadership” or “do not show organisational awareness”, and many were doing this without sitting down and reflecting on the grounds of the challenges and disagreement?

    Drawing parallel to our own classroom teaching and learning practices, do we allow children to challenge our teaching, our facts and knowledge, or do we just ask them to learn the content and present similar content during test/ examination?

    Audrey, in her earlier post, made reference to the subject of Upper Secondary History. As a history teacher, I applaud the ministry when the assessment was moved to Source-Based question, requiring the pupils to understand sources and make intepretations in response to the questions. While the assessment encouraged critical literacy, today, many teachers have templates to help the pupils in answering the questions, and some even came up with a step by step guide to thinking. Isn’t critical literacy about thinking and responding accordingly to the given information? It seems that the drive for academic results has over-taken the need of critical literacy – because teachers do their part in making it “irrelevant”.

    It takes us, teachers on the ground, to start applying and allowing the application, that we could possibly put critical literacy to work. Perhaps, we may want to lower our level of skepticism and increase our level of openness and flexibility in our own practices.

  15. What is critical literacy? The critical literacy scholars tell us that when we read a text, we have to apply the following questions:
    1. What are the assumptions behind the statements?
    2. How does the author understand reality? What is shaping his/her understanding?
    3. Who decides (what is real, can be known or needs to be done)
    4. In whose name and for whose benefit?
    5. What are the implications of his/her claims (past/present/future: social, environmental, economic, etc…)?
    6. What are the sanctioned ignorances (blind spots) and contradictions?
    Why these questions? In brief, because texts, according to them, conceal hidden power relations, or underlying ideological meanings and hidden or not so hidden agendas. Critical literacy involves an understanding of the way ideology shapes how reality is conveyed in texts. By becoming critically literate, students are able to detect the ideological dimension of language and ask whether these ideological views should be accepted. Fair enough. I think this can be a particularly useful tool for media messages and advertisements. We should question ads. There’s always some assumption behind their sales pitch. What are the assumptions behind those awful slimming ads? Beauty is in having the right corporeal size and shape. If you are beautiful externally, you feel more confident. Beautiful people have more friends. But even after applying those critical questions to sift out those assumptions, one may still agree with the assumptions that underlie those ads. That’s why I think critical literacy isn’t enough. To be able to judge if some claim or assumption is worthwhile, in order to believe it or not requires another form of literacy: ethics. Ethics offers criteria for judging what is good, and what is not good, what are worthy beliefs to have in order to live a flourishing life. Without it, critical literacy can become a meaningless or pedantic exercise. So what if you uncover someone’s assumptions and the implications of their claims? You need to have some notion of what’s good and bad to reject or accept it. G.K. Chesterton once said: “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” Without ethics, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking critical literacy too seriously. So I agree with Anselm Paul that critical literacy has its relevance, but has to be done in conjunction with values or character education. Otherwise, critical literacy can be used in a willful spirit, not spurred on by a genuine search for what is true and good.

  16. Creative problem solving involves higher order thinking (HOT) skills. To be able to use these skills, students would have explored and accomplished the knowledge and application stages of the Blooms taxonomy. They would practice the analysis, evaluation and even the synthesis stages of approaching a problem. In dealing with analysis and evaluation, inevitably students would have questioned themselves as to the origin of problem, make assumptions, test out their assumptions. There would be some overlap with the skills required for Andreotti’s six main questions for Critical Literacy. We can then advocate critical literacy pedagogy as a subset of our current problem based learning pedagogy used.
    In our eastern society, students are taught values such as respect for the elders/authority, treasuring harmony in our families and filial piety. Discipline is foundation to our learning environment created at home and in schools. Hence to openly criticize and debate issues with an authority such as our teachers or parents would not be a norm in our society at present. In my opinion, introducing critical literacy in schools would open up a channel for our students to exercise their opinion and pen them down through critique of literary work. It may help enhance their problem solving skills as I see them as being complementary to each other.

  17. I think critical thinking and critical literacy pedagogy are premised on different things, though each has its own value in education. Each invokes the term “critical” as a valued educational goal: urging teachers to help students become more skeptical toward commonly accepted truisms. However, these two approaches propose conflicting visions of what ‘critical ‘ thought entails. The Critical Thinking tradition, to be “critical” basically means to be more discerning in recognizing faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority and so forth. As Harvey Siegel states, critical thinking aims at self-sufficiency, and “a self-sufficient person is a liberated person…free from the unwarranted and undesirable control of unjustified beliefs” (Siegel, 1988, 58).

    The Critical Pedagogy tradition however begins from a very different starting point. It regards specific belief claims, not primarily as propositions to be assessed for their truth content, but as parts of systems of belief and action that have aggregate effects within the power structures of society. It asks about these systems of belief and action, who benefits? The primary preoccupation of Critical Pedagogy is with social injustice and how to transform inequitable, undemocratic, or oppressive institutions and social relations. For Critical Thinking, it is not enough to know how to seek reasons, truth, and understanding; one must also be impassioned to pursue them rigorously. For Critical Pedagogy, that one can critically reflect and interpret the world is not sufficient; one must also be willing and able to act to change that world.

  18. Is there a place for Critical Literacy in the Singapore school?

    I think our current curriculum has paved the way for critical literacy pedagogy to exist in the classroom. For instance in the teaching of Social Studies, Koh’s 6 questions may somewhat been applied in answering Source-Based Questions. Students learn how to analyse written sources by looking at the provenance or typicality (Q1), inferring the tone, purpose and meaning of the text, deciding the reliability of the information (Q2, 4, 5 and 6) and providing alternative viewpoints of the issue (Q3).

    However, many students are still not quite able to read a text for subtle underlying nuances. In addition, when voicing out their viewpoints pertaining to the topic of “Governance”, students lack the confidence and maturity of discussing political issues and agenda. If presented with a text on international monetary aid being provided to the developing world, students would mostly bring up the surface issues of “the rich helping the poor” but may be blind sighted to issues such as loan repayment period and debt accumulation.

    There is indeed value in adopting the Critical Literacy Pedagogical approach to T&L, especially in developing learners for the 21st Century and possibly beyond. Students need to develop a questioning mind, where they will be able to discern a text’s values and be attuned to ideas such as social justice, equality and freedom of expression.

  19. Before we can teach our pupils to be critical thinkers, we have to reflect if we ourselves are critical. If not, how can we teach something we do not have? If we are, then, we got to ask ourselves – what use is our thinking if it is not shared or if it does not galvanise us into action?

    We, in the schools, are at the forefront of where the action is. We feel weary after so many years in the system. At the MLS, we feel inspired, hearing our lecturers, hearing our inner voices, feeling the first love that brought us into teaching in the first place. Yet, we know that once we are back in school, we are back where critical thinking and critical voices are drowned out by the more urgent demands of operational issues.

    My take is that at the school level, the culture of openness and sharing is still lacking. We don’t have to move too far away. Just take subject matter knowledge, for instance, exam questions. Teachers and even HODs are defensive when it comes to suspending judgment. Many a times, standardisation meetings, especially for Science questions, become quite unbearable because setters are so set in their thinking and no other perspectives are permitted. The deeper issue is really about the adequacy of content knowledge. Perhaps too much is at stake for the setter or the department to answer for a badly-set question.

    Too often, for the sake of keeping things cordial, fellow colleagues keep mum and refuse to be drawn into debates of any kind to do with subject matter knowledge. To me, it is a missed opportunity for learning and deprives the entire group the chance to level up with each other in our conceptual knowledge.

    If this is the state of affairs, what more ask teachers to shoot holes in their own thinking when it comes to macro issues?

    There seems to be a conspiracy of disinterest when it comes to setting a thinking culture in the school. Leaders are either too busy or too driven by efficiency to want to engage staff to think critically. The bottomline is, they are also concerned, probably, whether the thinking will serve the interest of the school or the vision that they espouse. Thinking and values are not neutral in themselves. In that sense, we must always situate critical thinking in the context of power relations in the school, in order that we may not be seen as ‘too potent’ or as a maverick out to disturb the equilibrium in the school. Perhaps, that is why, when ‘self censorship’ creeps in so insidiously, we are not even aware.

    Critical thinking? Perhaps only at NIE.
    Critical thinking to galvanise us into action? Those who tried it have left service. Those who remain here are full of self-doubt and question ourselves every day.

  20. There are many different definitions of critical thinking in schools in Singapore. As A. Koh mentioned in his article, a large part of that stems from the approach or perspective one takes in defining critical thinking. Instead of grappling with the myriad of definitions and approaches, he proposes a focus on a more encompassing concept of critical literacy. Elements of that can be seen in secondary schools with source-based case studies as a requirement in the ‘O’ level Combined Humanities/Humanities syllabus. As stated in the assessment objectives, pupils are expected to interpret and evaluate sources. They should able to distinguish fact, opinion and judgment and recognize values and detect bias among other skills. More recently, a media literacy programme was offered to primary (for the Primary 4 or 5 pupils) and secondary schools (for Secondary 2 or 3 pupils) with the objective of ‘nurturing media-literate students who can critically evaluate and create media on their own’. Again, this brings to mind elements of critical literacy. Unlike in the first instance where secondary school teachers are trained to teach the skills involved in analyzing and evaluating the information as well as assessing pupil’s work, the media literacy programme is handled by three external vendors which participating schools can choose from. It is considered an enrichment programme that came about as an initiative by MOE and supported by the Tote Board. If critical literacy is of increasing importance, do we want vendors to decide the curriculum and run the programmes? Or is it something we would like to train our teachers in so that it can be infused in in-classroom discourse and practices? Or do we sit and wait until it becomes an assessment objective in a national or international exam before we decide that it is important enough or worth the time to have it examine further?


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