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Opening up, branching out and tossing back

Opening up, branching out and tossing back
Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf / Unsplash

A recent paper (Cui & Teo, 2023) looked at critical thinking skills in Chinese students. I explicitly mention the nationality of the students because the authors claim that critical thinking training in China is especially difficult and that:

This can be attributed to a long-standing respect for teachers in China which seems to have encouraged students to adopt a deferential stance towards authority (Tian & Low, 2011), power imbalance between teachers and students in classrooms (Yu, 2016), teachers' limited understanding of critical thinking and how to teach it (Li, 2016; Yuan & Stapleton, 2019; Zhang et al., 2020) and students' ambivalent and conflicting views of critical thinking (Chen, 2017; Lucas, 2019).

The authors wanted to find out if anything could be done about this state this affairs:

This raises the question of whether, and how, Chinese students’ critical thinking can be fostered in teacher-centered classrooms that respect authority and value harmony, which may then inhibit debate and stifle critique (Li et al., 2012; Li & Wegerif, 2014; Turner & Acker, 2002).

Some of the aforementioned obstacles will be recognizable to educators around the world as psychological obstacles and it is easy to see that culture could compound them. Interestingly enough, the solution offered by authors is not to move the authoritative role of the teacher to the background, but rather to have her model critical enquiry by engaging in dialogue with the students.

This dialogue was then analysed in terms of 'dialogic moves' made by teacher and students. The idea behind this was that collecting and analysing such moves could shed light on which kind of dialogue would lead to critical thinking among students. Table 1 lists the moves that were coded for the teachers, while Table 2 lists those for students.

Table 1 - Dialogic moves for teacher during critical dialogue. Taken from Cui & Teo, 2023.

Category Definition
Elicitation Eliciting or stimulating students' contribution using authentic or exploratory questions
Support Encouraging or facilitating students' participation in classroom dialogue
Integration Encouraging students to explain, add to, evaluate or otherwise respond to one another's contribution
Extension Extending the dialogue by adding to students' contribution, requesting for elaboration or explanation from students, or presenting a different scenario
Challenging Deepening students' thinking by expressing disagreement or pointing out problems/flaws in students' thinking

The way I look at this coding, both sides are escalating, but along different lines. The teacher's options range from prompting to arguing, while the students have options from analysis to synthesis. I should note that the authors of the study do not claim their coding schemes cover sequential levels of thinking.

Table 2 - Dialogic moves for students during critical dialogue. Taken from Cui & Teo, 2023.

Category Definition
Analysis the ability to break down information, issues, ideas, opinions or arguments into their organic constituent elements or to identify/establish the relationships among information, issues, ideas, opinions or arguments
Comparison the ability to identify similarities or differences among different information, issues, opinions, ideas or arguments
Evaluation the ability to judge the credibility, validity, value or significance of information, issues, opinions, ideas or arguments
Inference the ability to draw logical conclusions from information, observation, experience, judgement, theory or hypothesis
Synthesis the ability to draw on information, opinions, ideas or arguments from diverse sources to create a new opinion, idea or argument

As the authors argue, the most effective dialogical move by the teacher was elicitation or more specifically, eliciting students' ideas or opinions. This makes sense: once students have the idea they should express their ideas but there is little steering towards what is correct or incorrect, they are more likely to argue freely. Cui & Teo label this 'opening up', as it creates a space for critical thinking.

The next category of effective moves they identify is 'branching out'. This can be done by both extension and challenging moves, although the latter did not prove very effective in this particular study. The idea behind branching out is to prompt students to reflect on their original contributions and perhaps re-evaluate them.

Their final effective category for critical thinking is dubbed 'tossing back', which refers to the teacher reiterating a student position, adding a question and then throwing it back at the students. Apparently, the best way is to toss one student's opinion back to a different student, getting both of them to attentively listen and weigh in on the classroom discussion.

To me, the sequence of opening up, branching out and tossing back seems natural for a classroom discussion, even outside of China. Yet it's also a fragile method – tossing back, for example, can quickly bring back the authoritative voice of a teacher and 'close the space'. I can see the overall approach working, but as with all good teaching, it does lean heavily on having a good teacher in front of the classroom.


Cui, R., & Teo, P. (2023). Thinking through talk: Using dialogue to develop students’ critical thinking. Teaching and Teacher Education, 125, 104068.