Critical Thinking, Culture and Cognition: How Classroom Teachers Can Better Help Adolescent English

By Janice L. Doucette, M.Ed.

Fort McMurray Public School District


Janice Doucette is an English Language Arts teacher in Fort McMurray, Alberta, where she has been teaching for six years at the high school and junior high school grades. She currently enjoys a teaching assignment dedicated to grade 9 students at the public junior high. She earned her Masters of Education degree in 2014, specializing in Educational Research, from the University of Calgary. Presently, she is pursuing a Masters of Professional Education, specializing in Multiliteracies, from the University of Western Ontario. Doucette’s research interests lie where literacy and cognition intersect.



Informed by practice and research, this paper discusses the difficulties that some English Language Learners (ELLs) experience in navigating the English curriculum in Alberta. Specifically, this paper examines how some ELLs struggle to meet curricular expectations to create critically and analytically written texts; they tend to deviate from the Western-centric, linearly written discourse to favour a more circular, non-direct style. Assessing students’ critical thinking is not an entirely straightforward task for teachers, nor is cognition a homogenous endeavor for students. The research in this paper is rooted in the emerging field of cultural neuroscience. As such, the link among culture, language, and cognition is investigated in an effort to better inform classroom practice with regards to educating and assessing ELLs.



This paper speaks to the concern for English language learners (ELLs) who display English language proficiency, yet who demonstrate a gap in critical and analytical writing at the senior high school level. In my professional practice of teaching senior and junior level high school English courses, I have observed that students from some cultures (such as South American, Middle Eastern, African, or Asian) gravitate to narrative or curvilinear structures, and display significant difficulties adopting a critical or linear structure of writing. Recognizing that writing is a complex cognitive task, I wondered about the relationships among cognition, culture, and critical thinking.

Many questions regarding neuroscience provided the impetus to the literature review in this paper. Is cognition universal? Does an adolescent brain possess the ability to adopt a new way of thinking? How can we, as educators, better prepare our ELL students to meet curricular demands? After providing research that seeks to explore how language and culture, neuroscience, and brain plasticity intersect, applications for classroom practice are suggested.


Literature Review


Alberta Curriculum

Through a number of forums, including curriculum documents, Alberta Education currently promotes critical thinking skills Senior high school level English Language Arts (ELA) courses in Alberta, especially those designed as preparatory courses for post-secondary institutions, require that students create critical and analytical essays that focus on form and structure. Students enrolled in ELA 30-1, a required course for admission to universities and some college programs, are required to write and achieve a proficient score on a diploma exam. During the exam, students must use a “deductive approach” to “establish a central argument” and “develop a controlled discussion” with a “judicious arrangement of ideas to sustain and interrogate the thesis” (Alberta Government, 2012). ELA 30-2 is the minimum required English course to earn an Alberta high school diploma; its diploma exam also requires that students create linear and structured writing with a clear focus that anticipates the readers’ needs. Essentially, each student in Alberta—regardless of background—is expected to successfully write a structured essay with a linear form and structure.


English Language Learners

Increasingly, immigrant children are making up a significant portion of our classrooms. According to Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, one of five people in Canada’s population is foreign-born and, together, they represent about 200 ethnic origins. An even larger number of Canadian children are born to immigrant parents and grow up in homes where neither English nor French is spoken. In areas that attract large numbers of immigrants, such as Toronto, over 40% students have a mother tongue other than English. In Montreal, 34% of students speak a language other than English or French at home, and in the Vancouver school district 61% of students speak a language other than English at home (Canadian Council on Learning, 2009). Between 2006 and 2011, roughly 10.3 per cent of all immigrants—approximately 120,700 people—settled in Calgary and Edmonton (Sinnema & Pratt, 2013). Among those whose first language was other than Canada’s two official languages, Chinese languages were most common, followed by Tagalog (a language of the Philippines), Spanish and Punjabi (Canadian Council on Learning, 2009).

Alberta Education has adopted the term English Language Learner (ELL) instead of English as a Second Language student (ESL) because some immigrant students speak multiple languages (Alberta Education, 2010). Appropriately, in an effort to avoid categorizing all immigrant students into one homogenous group and assuming that each is learning English as a second language, these students are now referred to as ELLs. Also, educators must carefully avoid treating all ELLs the same; Cummins (2000) asserts that ELLs share some common proficiencies; but, there are also acute differences, especially with regard to the age of immersion into the English language. Consensus among language theorists is that learners typically take five to seven years to achieve grade level equivalency in academic language with native speakers (Garnett & Ungerleider, 2008). In terms of academic success, research shows that a student’s age of arrival can significantly impact their ability to gain English language fluency (Páez, 2009) or even graduate if they arrive after the age of 9 (Corak, 2011). Consequently, educators have a professional obligation to better understand the adolescent mind and the link among cognition, culture, and language.


Language and Culture  

Language and culture are inextricably bound. English language learners are not only learning a new language but also learning a new culture (Alberta Education, 2010). Moreover, educators must be cognizant of the types of communication styles favored in the students’ native cultures; for, as Early (2003) pointed out, they may lack the “cultural capital” to participate fully or meet the curricular expectations for critically written output. For example, many cultures focus more on narrative than analytic writing, and circular patterns of communication are preferred over direct modes of communication; Western-centric teachers cannot merely assume that students possess critical or analytical experience. Alhosani (2008) advised that, in Asian and Arabic classrooms, the focus is on grammar, spelling, and timed tasks; students are not provided with teacher models or student exemplars to follow. Moreover, once a student has been in Canada for a number of years, “progress in writing cannot be assumed to be a normal result of language proficiency” in English (Alhosani, 2008, p. 51). Garnett and Ungerleider (2008) looked at a large sample (n = 54 436) of grade 8 ELL students in British Columbia and found that Spanish, Vietnamese, and Philippino students routinely demonstrated weaker English proficiency. To be successful in Alberta’s English curriculum, ELL students need to master the rhetorical style of writing that reflects critical and analytical thinking, and this task may be more challenging for ELLs of certain cultural backgrounds. Because writing is both a learned skill and a cultural expression, teachers need to be aware of the rhetorical patterns in the student’s mother tongue, and Western rhetoric needs to be explicitly taught (Alhosani, 2008).


Neuroscience and Cognition

Beyond language barriers, researchers need to uncover other reasons why certain cultural students appear to be more adept at critical thinking. Tweed and Lehman (2002) explored the difference between Eastern Confucian-influenced learning and Western Socratic-influenced learning. Western constructs of learning and certain pedagogical tools, such as group work, are quite foreign to Asian students. Foster and Stapleton (2012) studied Asian students enrolled in North American university business courses. These Asian students conveyed that, in China, they were not expected to speak freely. Moreover, they did not understand the usefulness of small group discussions to generate ideas because in Confucian-oriented learning, the teacher is viewed as the person with all the knowledge. Also, in China, students are encouraged only to divulge an answer when they are certain they have the correct response, which contradicts the North American expectation of critically assessing and openly discussing a topic to formulate an opinion (Foster & Stapleton, 2012). While language was a barrier, the students in Foster’s and Stapleton’s (2012) study noted that cultural differences—specifically pedagogical cultural differences—created a barrier to demonstrating their knowledge and abilities.

An intriguing study by Haun, Rapold, Janzen, and Levinson (2011) explored cross-cultural variation in subjects’ preferred cognitive strategies and compared Dutch subjects to tribal Namibian subjects. In this simple experiment, subjects were asked to describe the placement of objects. The researchers were interested in how the subjects viewed and conveyed the placement of objects. The Dutch respondents were egocentric—they discussed the placement of objects in relation to themselves or others. Conversely, Namibian respondents were geocentric—they discussed the placement of objects in relation to natural markers (for example, the sun). The researchers made the placement of objects more complex and asked the subjects to shift their way of thinking. When asked to switch strategies, and replace geocentric modes of thinking with egocentric modes, the subjects’ performance diminished significantly. Haun et al. (2011) maintained that the results show that “at least in some domains cultural diversity goes hand in hand with cognitive diversity” (p. 79).

 The extent to which culture impacts cognition is still unknown, but scientists have conclusively discovered that neural processing is shaped by one’s culture and environment; scholars have termed this phenomenon culture-gene coevolutionary theory, and have been conducting experiments to further understand how culture influences cognition. For example, scientists have recently discovered that a serotonin transporter gene (known as 5-HTTLPR that shapes psychological and neural processes) is affected by social constructs such as individualist or collectivist cultures (Chiao & Immordino-Yang, 2013). Choudhury (2010) argued that educators should challenge the assumption of universality of the perception, interaction, and cognition because, through brain imaging, researchers have proven that “neural signatures” do exist (p. 159).


The Adolescent Brain

Numerous studies from the 1970s and 1980s have revealed that the prefrontal cortex undergoes significant changes during adolescence. Specifically, the brain eliminates and reorganizes prefrontal synapses; essentially, the brain is fine-tuning synaptic connections to make the brain’s circuitry more effective (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006). Synaptic pruning is believed necessary for categorization tasks—including language tasks. Hence, the adolescent period of synaptic reorganization may be an opportune time to foster social cognition and complex language tasks because certain social cognitive skills might be “much more difficult to incorporate into brain networks once they are established” (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006, p. 307). Blakemore and Mills (2014) posited that adolescence reflects a sensitive period for adapting to one’s social environment: “the adolescent mind is malleable and adaptable” and educators could use this knowledge to “inform both curriculum design and teaching practice with the aim of ensuring that classroom activities exploit periods of neural plasticity that facilitate maximal learning” (Blakemore & Mills, 2014, p. 200).



Culture, cognition, and critical thinking are linked; although the relationship among them is complex, research clearly recognizes an intricate connection between the social environment and the brain. Recent neuroimaging studies have revealed that the brain is shaped by experience, and that the adolescent brain is highly adaptive and primed for complex socio-cultural interactions. Teachers may become frustrated at the apparent plateau in students’ writing; however, we must consider the students’ cultures and use their cultures as a teaching foundation to help them develop new writing skills. This paper is not about categorizing specific cultures, nor should race and culture be confused. Additionally, cultural neuroscience is not about racial profiling; “cultural neuroscientists have little interest in using brain activity as a way to classify people into groups” (Han et al., 2013). Rather, we have a responsibility in our multicultural classrooms to embrace our ELLs’ cultures as a way to understand their discourse styles and to effectively teach alternate modes of rhetoric.



Classroom Practice

As research supports, the adolescent brain is primed for socio-cultural interactions; thus, teachers should provide generous discussion time for small-group interactions, which promote opportunities for various levels of discourse from which ELLs would greatly benefit. Moreover, teachers must not assume that cultures possess the same elements of rhetoric. Seemingly homogenous groups can be quite heterogeneous, so teachers should ask ELLs what classroom experiences they find beneficial. Teachers should provide plenty of models of exemplars and explicitly teach the expected style of discourse.

Likewise, teachers need to explicitly teach the writing process. Writing is a process that should focus on the planning stages (see Figure 1) and on the revising stage. Many students are unaware of the difference between revising and editing and confound the two. Revising is dedicated to the macro aspects of the essay such as content and organization (where the bulk of achievement marks are earned); editing is dedicated to the micro aspects of the essay such as mechanics (where nominal marks are earned). Teachers can help tremendously by having students adhere to the writing process and by having students focus more on content and organization of ideas within their essays.


Further Research

Neuroscience is a rapidly growing discipline. Despite cultural neuroscience being in its infancy, rich data can be gleaned from research. Educational researchers should be encouraged to team with other disciplines to better understand and appreciate the development of social cognition during adolescence (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006). Additionally, research by cultural neuroscientists that includes more culturally diverse subjects is necessary; similarly, investigations into cultural variations of written discourse would be valuable.


Figure 1. A representation of the writing process, which is meant for writers to follow in order—note the emphasis on drafting and revising, which could involve multiple attempts.


Some ELLs are not well positioned to navigate the prescriptive curricular expectations of senior high school—especially the critical and analytical writing tasks in Alberta’s English program. Scientists are discovering that language, pedagogical, and cultural differences shape cognition and also configure brain mechanisms and neural connections. Cultural neuroscience is a new field that blends disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, science, and education in an effort to understand and legitimize differences in cognition. By embracing the biology of learning, educators can create more effective practices to enhance ELL students’ critically written output. Increasing diasporic movements and immigrant student rates necessitate the awareness of cultural neural signatures; teachers need a broader pedagogical toolkit to effectively teach and to fairly assess critical thinking skills in today’s diverse classrooms.



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