Critical Thinking About Technology: An ELT Activity

Our world is awash in new technology. New electronic gadgets, new smartphone apps, and new forms of social media abound. But which of these will stand the test of time? And how do these dazzling technology innovations compare in significance to those of the past?

This was the critical thinking and speaking task that I recently asked my advanced adult ELLs to tackle as a prelude to watching a series of TED Talks and YouTube videos about technological innovations ranging from 3D printing to a windmill build from scrap materials by a 14-year old in Malawi .

In groups of three, I asked my students to think about the long sweep of human history and to come up with their own list of 10 technological innovations that they deemed to have had the greatest impact on humanity. I then asked them to examine each item on their list, and see if they could agree within their group on how to rank those innovations, with #1 being the absolutely most significant, #2 the next most significant, and so on until they reached #10.

Making their initial lists of technological innovations turned out to be relatively easy for members of each team to agree on. Much harder was to reach consensus on how to rank the various items on their list in terms of significance. This task provoked extended arguments as students challenged their teammates and tried to persuade each other why one technological innovation deserved a higher (or lower) ranking.

Here are the initial lists my students created and posted on the white board for other teams to examine:

Rank Order Group #1 Group #2 Group #3
#1 Electricity Alternating current Telephone
#2 Internet Internet Computers
#3 Computer Cars Light bulb
#4 Wheel Boats Wheel
#5 Radio Wheel Steam engine
#6 Telephone Satellite Printing press
#7 Airplanes Printing Airplanes
#8 Batteries Smart phones Automobiles
#9 Light bulb Airplane Oil refining
#10 Motor Phones Flat iron

The lists were fascinating in both their similarities and their differences. In order to take advantage of these differences, I rearranged the groups, so that now, each new group of three consisted of a representative from each of the original groups. Their new critical thinking and speaking task was to examine the three lists, notice any significant differences, and cross-examine each other about the differences. Why, for instance, did Group #3 leave the Internet off its list? Why did Group #1 not consider the printing press to be a Top 10 technological innovation? And why did Group #2 consider satellites and alternating current to be so significant?

Finally, as a whole group, we looked at what was missing from the lists. No group, for instance, included any medical advances on their list. I challenged them to fill in some of the gaps, and students nominated penicillin, X-rays, and anesthesia as major medical innovations.  Interestingly to me, no one mentioned any of the major technological innovations in the field of warfare (the invention of gunpowder, the modern rifle, or the atom bomb).

Together, we made a list of some of these missing innovations. I put the students back in their original groups and asked them to decide whether they wanted to change their original lists in any way to incorporate any of these additional innovations. If so, which items on their original list of 10 would they remove to make way for one of the “missing” innovations? And how, if at all, would that change their initial rankings?

All in all, this activity provided well over an hour of critical thinking and speaking practice. How do you use ranking activities to promote critical thinking and debate?

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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4 Responses to Critical Thinking About Technology: An ELT Activity

  1. Carolina says:

    THank you for this, I’m teaching at the graduate level to Art Education masters students on Technology in Education in the context of art education and I love critical thinking opportunities as you’ve presented. This is a great exercise to adopt to my class. Thank you for sharing! very valuable. I would like to ask what might be a first class reflection question I might use to brainstorm student perspectives on what technology means to them. I was considering the following questions? How has Technology changed the way we make, learn, and teach “subject” in my case art? What does Technology Mean to me (reflection wall), How should we engage our future students with our content? (not tech related but getting at the heart of how they want to engage the next generation in their subject) Thoughts to these, do you have recommendations for reflective group questions for the first class of my course? Thank you!

  2. kadija says:

    It is interesting and beneficial posts. ..
    If it is possible.I would to get your help and suggestios …
    if my topic will be about effective English teaching ….what the critical thinking aspects and dimensions must be addressed in my research questions …
    what should be focus on …
    Thank you ..

  3. Kandasamy Puvirajan says:

    A good activity to prod thinking.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read my blog post and to give me your positive feedback. I look forward to hearing how this plays out in your classroom. Best, Alexandra

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