Passive users or critical thinkers? Developing critical and creative thinking skills with technology

Passive users or critical thinkers?

Developing critical and creative thinking skills with technology

Had enough with your students using their tablets or mobile devices to play games for non-thinking users? Project based learning with the aid of technology can be used creatively to stimulate students interest and develop their critical and creative thinking skills. This post is about activities and tools that can help students use their creative and critical abilities while learning.

A brief intro
Technology has often been accused of creating passive learners, who rely heavily on visuals and are used to a superficial approach to learning, rather than developing their creative and critical thinking skills. However, through project based learning, technology can play an instrumental role in enabling students to develop their creative skills such as expressing  ideas they have generated and depicting reasoning by metaphor and analogy; their critical thinking skills such as reasoning through logic, analysis and interpretation by comparing data through internet sources as well as skills which overlap the two categories mentioned above such as synthesis and integration, abstraction and simplification.

A brief definition
The word critical derives from the Greek word “crisis” (κρίσις) which means ability to judge; ability to reach a choice or decision. In a sense, a crisis is a challenge to deal with by using critical thinking skills.

You may be wondering why I have chosen to develop critical and creative thinking skills instead of the latter. A quick look at the diagram shows that they overlap.

Why these activities?
Students are inundated with messages in English while surfing the internet, playing games or watching TV. They are brainwashed and often led to believe that by purchasing consumer goods or services they can achieve or become anything they dream of with the touch of a magic "wand". As a teacher, following the current teaching trends,  I felt that my teaching should be more personalized (the term used in its EFL meaning) and learner centred; involve students and allow them to use their creativity and critical thinking skills. So I asked my 5th and 6th grade pupils to do the following projects and activities:


Project 1
I gave my students the following instructions:

Part A
Find a commercial or advertisement that you like.
Present it in class and talk about:
What product or service is advertised?
What is the main message?
Is it true or misleading? Why?

Students used their tablets to find ads or comercials and presented them in class in the form of powerpoint presentations. Most of them triggered discussion and to my surprise students easily "read between the lines" and could tell whether they were misleading or not. For example one of them presented the advertisement of a convertible with the following slogan:" Men talk about women, sports and cars. Women talk about men in sports cars" . It was a good opportunity to talk about stereotypes even though their lexical resources are limited. Then I gave them the following instuctions.

Part 2
Work in pairs or groups. Invent a new product or service. Design the logo and think of a motto.
Create your own advertisement or commercial.
Present it in class.
Vote for the best commercial in class.

Some produced videos with their mobiles and using windows movie maker  and others powerpoint presentations. Here is a sample of their work.


Activity 2
I showed my pupils the photo below and asked them the following questions:

Look at the photo
Can you see a famous person?
This photo was taken during WW2
Is the photo authentic or not?

Use your devices to find out

Source:  http://www.chaniapost.eu/2015/03/12/is-brad-pitt-from-crete/

The pupils identified Brad Pitt in the photo. They worked in pairs or groups and they had to decide how to go about it. There were two prevailing trends. One that they should search for the date WW2 broke out and compare it with Brad Pitt's birthday. The other that they should search for any Brad Pitt film to be released soon about WW2. A pupil asked me if they could take a snapshot of the photo with their devices but I refused and asked them to use their mind and key words in their search.  The activity took about 20 mins and the vast majority found out if the photo is authentic or photoshopped. There was a follow-up discussion about whether we should believe that everything we see on the internet is authentic and how we can use our skills to verify it. 

Activity 3
This is an activity I tried with my students a day before Christmas holidays. I asked them to read the instructions and use their devices to plan the holiday. The webquest had to be in English and I also explained a few words like "BB, half-board and full board, transfer" that were beyond my pupils' schematic knowledge. 

Planning hols
Your mom and dad are celebrating their wedding anniversary and would like to spend a weekend abroad.
Organize a weekend for them and present two holiday destinations they may go to. Below there are some points to consider:

      Their budget is about 600 Euros
      They would like a place with many sights to visit
      They can depart on Friday after work and they have to be back by Sunday evening.
      You will need to calculate tickets, accommodation,  food and any other expenses they may have
      Suggest what they can do there e.g. visit museums, do sports, taste local food etc
Prepare a powerpoint presentation and share with the class before presenting it to your parents.

Activity 4
This is taken from the Disabled Access Friendly website and raises awareness. I have not tried it in class yet but I intend to ask my students to build a Disabled access friendly community using Microsoft Minecraft as a follow-up activity.

Show them the slide below and ask them:

Elicit ideas on why the kitchen might be tricky, and then move on to how the kitchen could be improved

 Some closing thoughts 
A few months after I’d presented the projects in Manchester (IATEFL) and Seattle (E2 Microsoft Educators), I realized how useful working on critical and creative thinking skills with young learners is in the midst of the heightening European crisis. 

To my dismay, I saw the traditional media distorting the conditions in Greece during the capitals control period: photos of empty shelves when all the supermarkets were well stocked, an excessive number of pensioners fainting in front of cameras – a good opportunity for some pensioners to get some extra money by the film crews and perform in front of an international audience.


What made me even sadder was the obsession of some colleagues from abroad to regurgitate narratives of “good” and “bad” nations floated by the media without ever having lived in Greece.  No analysis, no comparison, no effort to read further about the issue. Just the reproduction of stereotypes and theories - most of them discredited by statistics of prestigious organizations.

Despite the impressive abundance of data, statistics, arguments and analysis covering a wide spectrum of stances, they adopted a superficial “black and white sheep” approach to the issue, turning a blind eye to the consequences the crisis may have on their  and their students' life- developments in one “neighbourhood” in our global village are almost certain to affect the others. 

It was if I could hear a flock of sheep bursting out in a tremendous  bleating “four legs good, two legs bad” from Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. One cannot help wondering: Are these the educators who will facilitate learning and help learners to develop their critical thinking skills?

Technology (the internet in this case) has risen to the challenge of the occasion by offering unprecedented pluralism and extensive coverage. The question raised though is:

Are we – as teachers and citizens- ready to use our critical thinking skills to make the most of what technology offers or are we unwilling to leave our comfort zone and settle with oversimplified stories and approaches?

It will come as no surprise to me if sooner or later our students turn their back on our shallow teaching no matter how much technology we garnish it with…

Dimitris Primalis


  1. Great article, indeed!!! It gives insights in teaching with technology , because like it or not tecnology is advancing and is here to stay so, we better make good use of it rather than aforism approaching..it. Besides, what matters is not what you do but how you do it.Yes, project based teaching engages students, motivates them to sustain teir learning and shoulder their responsibility for it.Also, if we teach students topics and material that make them think and create things themselves then lessons become interesting for them and their self confidence boosts!!

  2. Just wondering if there is a connection between the flock mentality you witnessed among teachers and the earlier diagram pitching active against passive modes of learning. Those teachers, were, in the main, products of forms of education valuing learner autonomy, were they not?

    Perhaps the distinction between passive (bad) and active (good) is too simplistic. And here education needs to learn from social trends beyond it. The most powerful forms of human herding are those that mobilise the self-directed energies and interests of the individual. That was Thatcher's great contribution to social engineering: The best way of getting the unruly mob to submit dutifully to the rule of business is to cajole everyone to get on their entrepreneurial bikes and actively learn how to sell themselves as a life-long project. The most stable herd for the business world is one in which everyone is brought up to think of himself as his own entrepreneurial shepherd.

    Teachers designing critical thinking activities need to be more aware of this false form of autonomy - one that merely learns to be an enthusiastic co-creator of the prevailing state of heteronomy.

    In practice, this would involve being on the lookout for the values of the entrepreneurial self-herdsman that are being uncritically affirmed. Your suggested activities provide examples of this: The commercial mindset is taken for granted and consolidated. Children practise exercising their judgement as consumers and producers of advertising; they are encouraged to look for the celebrity, confirming their received wisdom that celebrity (an essentially commercial value) is more worthy of attention than the genuine heroism of nameless people fighting in the resistance; or they are given a budget and instructed to autonomously decide how best to spend it.

    Before trying to teach critical thinking skills perhaps we need to think a little more critically ourselves about what exactly children need to think critically about.