A Platform for Critical Thinking within Foreign Language Acquisition
Ekaterina V. Talalakina
Department of Foreign Languages, National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Keywords: Debates, Video-conference, Critical Thinking, Foreign Language Acquisition, Synchronous and
Asynchronous e-Learning.
Abstract: The need to foster critical thinking has long been one of the key issues in education. It is essentially vital
nowadays against the background of an increased volume of cross-cultural communications due to the
present-day demand for collaboration to tackle pressing global issues through joint efforts of different
nations. While the format of debates has been recognized by researchers as one of the most efficient tools of
setting off critical thinking, it is up to the new technologies in education to make it possible to bring this
platform to a cross-cultural level. Since a cross-cultural dialogue in most cases supposes the mastery of a
foreign language, e-learning in the form of cross-border video-conference debates present an invaluable
opportunity for educators to enhance the pedagogy of foreign language acquisition around the globe. The
present paper focuses on a case-study of an on-going project of implementing the tool of synchronous cross-
cultural video-conference debates.
A growing demand for pedagogy enhancement in
foreign language acquisition within the framework
of formal education rests on the attempts of
educators to meet the present-day needs of the
global community, i.e. to provide it with multi-
lingual professionals capable of critical thinking.
Critical thinking has been viewed as a cornerstone of
the learning process since ancient times, but the
modern approach dates back to American
philosopher, John Dewey, who is considered ‘the
father of modern critical thinking tradition’ (Fisher,
2001). Namely, Dewey established the concept of
‘reflective thinking’, which he defined as ‘active,
persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or a
supposed form of knowledge in the light of the
grounds which support it and further conclusions to
which it tends’ (qtd. in Fisher, 2001). Such approach
is clearly based on contrasting reflective/critical
thinking to a passive acquisition of ready-made
knowledge without questioning it. Since critical
thinking supposes an active role of an individual in
processing information they encounter, researchers
outline a number of cognitive skills involved in this
process. Specifically, Facione (2011) highlights the
following constituents of critical thinking:
interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference,
explanation, and self-regulation. These components
could be fostered in academics only within a
specifically-created environment which fosters
active argumentation and reasoning, the two
underlying concepts of the debate format. Thus, this
study addresses the following research questions:
under which conditions can debates most efficiently
bring about critical thinking and how does the
innovative format of synchronous cross-cultural
video-conferencing contribute to this process?
Debate is usually used in education as a formally-
structured discussion of a particular issue with the
two opposing sides trying to refute the arguments of
each other. Such activity not only allows considering
multi-facet nature of the issue in its logical
development, but also involves the use of elaborate
public speaking techniques of persuading the
audience of one’s point of view. Thus, the nature of
debate is two-fold as it concerns the use of language
and logic. Due to the language component, the
debate is a popular tool in foreign language
V. Talalakina E..
VIDEO-CONFERENCE DEBATES - A Platform for Critical Thinking within Foreign Language Acquisition.
DOI: 10.5220/0003899700880093
In Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Computer Supported Education (CSEDU-2012), pages 88-93
ISBN: 978-989-8565-07-5
2012 SCITEPRESS (Science and Technology Publications, Lda.)
acquisition pedagogy.
Table 1: Critical thinking cognitive skills in the debate
Sub-skills Debate Tasks
1. interpretation
to distribute claims
according to their nature:
value, policy, or fact
to examine the scope of
the claim
to negotiate the meaning
of the key terms and
concepts used in the
2. analysis
examining ideas
to create mind-maps of
the issues connected to
the claim
to outline the main
arguments for both sides
to brainstorm adequate
support for the arguments
3. evaluation
assessing the
credibility of
to question the validity of
the arguments
assessing the
logical strength
of the arguments
to track logical fallacies
4. inference
to request sufficient
evidence to all arguments
to list alternative
to make a conclusion
5. explanation
methods and
to state the research
proposing and
to provide adequate
amount of support
presenting full
and well-
to logically structure the
support to each argument
6. self-
to provide self-evaluation
feedback after the debate
to suggest the ways for
2.1 Cognitive Skills
The format of the debate as a methodological tool
has been given a considerable amount of attention
by researchers due to the fact that such format
presents a unique combination of challenges to its
participants, ‘engaging the students in a variety of
cognitive and linguistic ways’ (Krieger, 2005). In
particular, it triggers the development of ‘logic-
based rhetoric and critical analysis that lies in the
heart of formal debate’ (Hansen, 2007). Debate does
not only imply a skillful use of the language, but
also supposes the use of logical patterns, which
makes the debate an invaluable means of learning
analytical thinking skills and forcing self-conscious
reflection on the validity of one’s ideas (Nisbett,
2003). Such interpretation of the debate process
brings us back to the cognitive skills involved in
critical thinking, which tie the two processes –
debating and critical thinking – together. The way
the debate tasks reflect the core cognitive skills of
critical thinking is shown in Table 1. (The
classification of cognitive skills and sub skills is
provided by Facione (2011)).
Table 1 shows that each stage of debate such
starting from the initial examination of the claim up
to post-debate self-criticism involves a number of
cognitive skills which constitute critical thinking.
Thus, the format of debate proves to be an
appropriate tool for fostering critical thinking.
2.2 Efficiency Pre-requisites
When applied specifically to foreign language
acquisition context, the format of debate raises a
number of issues to be solved. Nisbett (2003)
emphasizes that ‘potential fluency limitations of the
students are always an issue, as well as differing
linguistic and cultural norms regarding discussion
styles and the application of logical rules and critical
analysis in communication.’ That statement clearly
touches upon several aspects: 1) language
proficiency, 2) awareness of communication
patterns, and 3) aptitude for reasoning, which can be
attributed to the following learning outcomes of the
debate class: 1) to increase language fluency, 2) to
master culturally-rooted communication styles, and
3) to learn the skills of argumentation. Thus, the
instructors end up with the three-fold focus for
efficiency pre-requisites: language, culture, and
The three targets of the debate class – language,
culture, and logic – can be tackled differently.
Whereas, the language and the logic components can
be tackled in a conventional manner, the culture part
calls for the use of new technologies in education. In
particular, language component can be addressed
through a series of scaffolding exercises, which
equip the students with the necessary vocabulary and
grammatical structures to frame their
communication. Likewise, the rules of logic
structure of the arguments can be introduced in a
series of preliminary theoretical passages in the
students’ native language. However, it is the culture
components that cannot be dealt with by scaffolding
only and requires a hands-on practice-based training,
ideally involving the representatives of the target
culture. Building a cross-cultural environment is key
to culture learning as it is ‘not merely learning the
target culture, but gaining insights into how the
culture of the target language interacts with one’s
own cultural experience’ (Liaw, 2006). Moreover,
exploring one’s own culture credited with vital
significance in a cross-cultural dialogue. According
to Levy (2007), ‘pedagogical approaches and
techniques that help learners to reflect objectively on
their own culture are especially important because
language teachers and learners need to be sharply
aware of their point of departure in culture learning.’
Thus, it is essential to bridge the gap between the
two cultures, which can be successfully dealt with
through electronic conferences.This section must be
in one column.
Creating a formal educational platform to bring
together native speakers and non-native speakers in
the process of foreign language acquisition proved to
be successful by a number of researchers. For
instance, some researchers shows increase in
learner’s motivation (Jauregia et al., 2011), while
others indicate the boost in interactive competences
(Fitze, 2006). Whatever the outcome, tools for
formal asynchronous and synchronous students’
interaction are a popular subject of today’s debate
over the use of new technologies in education.
3.1 Asynchronous e-Forums
Asynchronous e-forums, also referred to as written
electronic conferences, bring numerous benefits into
the foreign language acquisition classroom. For
example, Liaw (2006) outlines four types of
intercultural competences that the students
developed through the use of such tool: ‘(A) interest
in knowing other people’s way of life and
introducing one’s own culture to others, (B) ability
to change perspective, (C) knowledge about one’s
own and others’ culture for intercultural
communication, and (D) knowledge about
intercultural communication processes.’ (p.49)
Clearly the interaction of native and non-native
speakers in this case contributed to the first-hand
exchange of the culture-related knowledge and
The findings of another study by Fitze (2006)
suggest that ‘second language students in written
electronic conferences display more interactive
competence, or in other words, more control of the
discussion’ than in face-to-face conferences (p.78).
Although the beneficial nature of the written
conference is evident, the latter juxtaposition of the
written and face-to-face conferences seems invalid.
The author attributes having ‘more control of the
discussion’ to an advantage of the written
conferences. Indeed, the asynchronous mode of the
discussion leaves room for more self-reflection and a
more careful choice of language means. However,
the real-life communication rarely presents such an
opportunity and requires a spontaneous
communicative act. Being trained to act on the spot
within the ever-changing discourse is a key
advantage of the synchronous conferences either
face-to-face or technology-mediated. Thus, even
though the numerical data provided in the research
of Fitze (2006) indicates the advantage of the written
communication practice, it is essential to consider it
as a supplement to the face-to-face communication
3.2 Synchronous Conferences
The most popular tools for synchronous video-
conferences in education are Skype and Polycom.
The benefits of the former include greater
availability and low cost, the advantages of the latter
are higher quality of transmitted signal (picture and
sound) and more options for manipulating with
viewer layout and recording the video. Nevertheless,
both are user-friendly, which allows their use by
non-technicians. Due to the spread of video-
conferencing technology, a number of studies have
been dedicated to the use of these instruments in the
foreign language acquisition classes. For instance,
Eaton (2010) provides an extensive overview of the
pedagogy of using Skype in ESL classroom. The
study focuses on the increase in students’ language
and communicative competencies.
In contrast to the asynchronous e-forums, video-
conferencing has some unique features which can be
regarded as the advantages of this type of
technology. First, unlike in written communication,
the user faces strict time constraints which call for
the development of time-management skills and the
ability to express oneself in a laconic yet meaningful
manner. Such constraints impose self-regulation and
a more careful choice of linguistic means. Likewise,
inability to alter one’s speech act upon its
completion (unlike the possibility to use the feature
of editing in the written e-forums) also pressures the
participants into a more reflective speaking. Then,
on the other hand, real-time communication leaves
room for flexibility and self-correction based on the
instant reaction of the listener. It allows a faster
negotiation of meaning in case of comprehension
failure. Finally, the unique characteristic of video-
conferencing is the opportunity to observe the verbal
and non-verbal communication patterns of the target
culture live. The culturally-rooted discussion styles
are on display while the viewers get both the audio
and the visual picture.
4.1 Project Description
In response to the demand for pedagogy
enhancement in foreign language acquisition in
terms of creating a special environment for critical
thinking and cross-cultural learning, a World Debate
project was launched in the spring 2011 between the
two institutions of higher education: National
Research University Higher School of Economics,
Moscow, Russia, and Brigham Young University,
Provo, Utah, U.S.A. The main goal of the project is
to teach argumentation and debate in a foreign
language by focusing on the three areas: language
proficiency, cultural communication patterns and
logical reasoning. The project has been carried out in
the form of synchronous video-conference debates.
4.1.1 Participants
The project brought together the students of English
as a foreign language from Russia and the students
studying Russian as a foreign language in the U.S.A.
The initial level of the students ranged from
intermediate-high to advanced-high according the
Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) conducted by
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign
Languages. The project was been conducted in the
spring semester of 2010/2011 and the fall semester
2011/2012 bringing together each time 12 students
on each side. Russian ESL students were all
sophomores majoring in world economics and
international affairs, while American students were
sophomores and juniors from various majors.
4.1.2 Framework
The project consisted in conducting 6 video-debates
(conducted through Polycom): three in each target
language, alternating the language of the debate each
time. In total the students participated in 3 debates in
the foreign languages and 3 in their native language.
Each video-debate had a time limit of 50 minutes
total (the class time of the U.S. institution) and had
the following structure. Six participants on each side
were given 4 minutes each to provide the arguments
in favor or against a particular claim. The minutes
were distributed in the manner so as to have the first
minute to present the argument, the second and the
third minute to answer on-the-spot questions from
the opposite side, and the fourth minute to conclude
the argument. Each student from the opposite side
had to pose at least one question during the debate
round. This rule specifically tackled the issue of
critical evaluation of the presented arguments.
4.1.3 Objectives
The main objectives of the project included the
following: 1) to increase foreign language
proficiency; 2) to learn communication patterns
specific to the target culture; and 3) to master
efficient argumentation and reasoning. All three
objectives were united by a meta-goal of fostering
critical thinking in foreign language acquisition.
4.2 Content Design
The content of the project was designed so as to
meet the intellectual needs of the students.
Researchers of debate pedagogy note that proper
topic selection is key: It cannot be too vague or too
general (Hansen, 2007). Thus, the choice of debate
topics was done through a survey in which the
students had to pick those topics that they found
engaging. The short-list offered to the students
included the topical issues relevant to both countries
– Russia and the U.S.A. For instance, the students
had to debate such claims as ‘Economic growth
should not be carried out at the cost of the
environment’ and ‘Foreign governments are justified
in interfering in domestic affairs of sovereign
As a scaffolding tool, the students were provided
with the articles in respective fields in the foreign
languages along with the list of topical vocabulary
and speech patterns to frame the debate. The aims of
the articles consisted in introducing the students into
the issue, equipping them with the vocabulary and
appropriate language constructions to the discussion
of the topic and stimulating further research which
would result in constructing their own arguments
and proving them with valid support.
4.3 The Benefits of Technology
The synchronous video-conferencing technology
used in the project (Polycom) brought about the
following benefits of a multi-cultural environment.
First, the students on the two sides of the ocean
got an opportunity to practice the language with the
native speakers of the target language, which would
not have been possible without such platform.
Namely, not only did it allow observing the correct
usage of grammar and vocabulary, along with
checking the right pronunciation of the key
vocabulary but also it provided for observing speech
pragmatics in practice. The differences between the
Russian and the American styles of debate were
clearly seen in the students’ interaction, which
facilitated finding common ground and adapting to
the culturally-rooted communication differences.
Second, synchronous interaction encouraged
instant negotiation of meaning and immediate self-
correction in case of an error. The on-going dialogue
also contributed to practicing spontaneous speech
and questioning the opponent’s position through
posing questions and requesting clarification in case
of fallacies in reasoning. The immediate peer-
reviewing and peer-correction by prompting the
right answers through the questions facilitated the
cross-cultural dialogue.
Finally, the use of video-recording of the debate
provided an opportunity for self-reflection and self-
criticism. Each student was assigned to submit
feedback on their own performance in the written
form highlighting their strong and weak points
displayed during the debate round.
All in all, the video-conference debate created a
platform for building language and reasoning skills
along with fostering cross-cultural understanding.
Anticipated results of the World Debate project
conducted in the form of video-conference debates
revolve around measuring the students’ progress in
critical thinking reflected in the use appropriate
language tools and culturally-rooted discussion
patterns to negotiate the meaning through a
logically-built argumentation and reasoning. Yet, on
the level of implementation already, it can be
observed that the format of debate can promote
critical thinking in foreign language acquisition
under the following conditions: 1) creation of multi-
cultural environment, 2) appropriate content design,
3) initial scaffolding in terms of language and
reasoning. Since the video-conferencing plays a vital
role in bridging the gap between native and non-
native speakers bringing them together in a
synchronous virtual classroom, we can conclude that
new technologies in education facilitate the
successful implementation of critical thinking and
enhance the pedagogy of foreign language
The author would like to thank Dr. Newel Anthony
Brown and his students from Brigham Young
University in Utah, U.S.A. for making this project
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