Thai News Network
Unincorporated: Critical thinking in a Thai reading programs
A project directed by
Maliwan Buranapatana (Khon Kaen University Thailand, University of Canberra,
Ania Lian (University of Canberra and University of Queensland, Australia)
(Copyright Ania Lian and Maliwan Buranapatana
This paper originated with the concern of producing innovative and engaging
learning environments for the teaching of critical reading skills. On reading
of the literature, it appeared that for the environment to be constructive,
it was important to create structures where students do not only engage in
the criticism of texts but, more importantly, construct their criticism with
the purpose of directing it at the conditions in question. With this objective
in mind, the project of the Thai News Network was created. The project issued
a challenge to students to establish their own news channel with goals and
means that would correspond to the kinds of ways in which they would see it
appropriate to effect a change. The article discusses the conceptual framework
behind the project and the outcomes as reported by teachers, students and
the reading audiences.
The concern with critical literacy arises from realisation that skills such
as reading and writing do not develop in isolation from social interactions.
Instead, how we produce and understand texts is a product of these interactions.
This two-way relationship between texts and their contexts has been the centre
of focus of critical literacy.
The task that critical literacy poses for itself therefore is that of identifying
the means that would make it possible for students to work with texts as products
of their contexts. This would imply an approach to reading and working with
texts in the course of which students investigate their understandings of
texts from the perspective of intellectual, social and political conditions
that these texts appear to reflect and reproduce (cf. New London Group, 1995).
While the development of such a skill would seem desirable in every field
of academic (and other) endeavour, typically, in educational institutions,
a critical approach to texts is a concern largely in subjects such as education,
literature, communication (cf. Cooks, L. 1995) and, on a few occasions, possibly
in second language teaching (cf. Lian and Lian, 1997; Lian 2002).
The objective of the research project reported here was to suggest an innovative
approach to critical literacy that would have the potential to enhance critical
thinking skills in Thai reading programs at the university level. The purpose
was to engage students in a learning environment that would be motivating
while, at the same time, facilitating development. The expectation was to
design conditions that would offer students opportunities to work with texts
in ways that prove to them to be revealing and useful.
With this goal in mind, this research project began with a closer investigation
of the concept of critical thinking and critical reading as they are typically
applied in critical literacy classes. In the next step, the concepts of critical
thinking and critical reading were further developed with the aim to conceptualise
the learning conditions where the demand and the quality of critical thinking
are not artificially regulated by teachers but emerge from and are regulated
by the social context.
The TNN-project has been developed as a means toward making possible an
environment of this kind. The discussion which follows describes the project
in detail, the principles on which it based, and the contexts of reference
in terms of which students’ performances were regulated and assessed. The
discussion paper concludes with an evaluation of the outcomes of the project
and reflections regarding future teaching proposals of a similar kind.
Critical literacy: principles and
As indicated above, the two-way relationship between texts and their contexts
has been the centre of focus of critical literacy. The common principle to
all approaches in critical literacy has been that texts do not just tell a
story. Rather, they are the product of stories that preceded them and they
themselves create a new story. This is the point made below by Freebody, Luke
“It is an important feature of texts that they
may operate to conceal their own ideology and artifice, to avoid any threat
to their status as representations of reality (Barthes, 1957). But while texts
often conceal that they are indeed both the product and producers of particular
reading and writing positions, it is precisely the deployment of these composite
and often contesting positions that affords the ways in which a reader might
begin to make sense of texts.” (Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991:440)
The quote above shows that texts are not only written to
describe reality as they see it but, more to the point, to affect the perceptions
of reality that are held by others. Reality therefore emerges as a fragile
construct, i.e. a set of experiences whose understanding is the subject of
manipulation rather than direct observation (Bourdieu, 1991). Considering
this quality of texts, the following implications can be made regarding the
task of critical literacy:
· Texts do not tell
how things are. Texts reflect a position in relation to reality and hence
participate in the process of shaping the understanding of reality.
The principles described above reduce the priority that
critical literacy gives to texts and places priority on the concern with informed
action. This shift from arguing with texts toward working with texts constructively
is a point that differentiates this study from most work done in critical
literacy. Most literature in critical literacy takes texts as their central
point of attention, texts as “artefacts subject to critique, contestation
and dispute” (Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991: 453).
· The less critical our approach
to texts, the more we become tools in the hands of their authors.
· Considering that reality is
not transparent but always an object of discursive manipulations, the objective
of critical literacy cannot be to assist students to understand texts.
· Furthermore, the objective
of expanding the contexts of reference (or the “reading and writing positions”)
that students would consider in the context of reading may also be insufficient
when considering that all perspectives seek to manipulate reality in one way
· Since the truth about reality
always escapes us, the question that critical literacy therefore should consider
is not so much how to expose students to a diversity of perspectives on reality.
The reality is not richer simply because there are many ways in which it can
be perceived. A diversity considered as such would contribute to a greater
confusion about the world in which we live.
· Our reality becomes richer
only when the ways in which we act on reality help us to create a more integrated
and hence a more connected, rather than disjoined picture of the world.
· The objective of critical
literacy therefore should not be not so much about exposing learners to a
diversity of reading positions, but more about facilitating conditions that
enable students to have a more integrated relationship to the world around
them, i.e. a relationship that gives them power to affect others in ways
that they see as appropriate.
· It would follow that the objective
of critical literacy is least about teaching to read and more about creating
conditions that enable students to act. Reading therefore functions less as
a goal and more as a means toward enabling a way of operating in the world
that is informed and that, in return, stimulates, or even demands, informed
However, the position that this project takes is that most texts are not
written in order to be critiqued, contested or disputed. As Freebody, Luke
and Gilbert also suggest, texts are written exactly to avoid such a reaction.
They do so by employing means that help them make natural or self-evident
the logic that they mobilise (Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991: 441):
“Texts covertly call upon the reader to adopt
certain positions or stances in order to make sense of information, in order
to reconstruct and reciprocate the writer’s apparent position (Kress, 1985).”
(Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991:440-441)
It is the objective of this project to propose an environment
where reading and writing are not privileged activities, but where reading
and writing emerge as a means which empower and which in return generate further
empowerment. This empowerment however is not controlled by the teacher. Instead,
it should emerge as an indication to students as to the kinds of contexts
in which their past (i.e. their experiences and hence what they are) appears
to work for them rather than against them.
If empowerment is one of the goals of teaching practices, at least an aspect
of this goal must involve a realisation on the part of students that their
past does not prevent them from shaping and affecting their future. It is
this focus on being in the world that this project explores and which it sees
as providing a bigger picture for all activities, including those of reading
and writing. The next section explores the methodological differences between
pedagogies which can be defined as text-focused and the model that this project
considers and which takes engagement in the world as its primary focus.
Text-focused and reality-focused critical
The differences between text-focused teaching practices and those that make
engagement in the world their primary focus can be summarised in terms of
the following criteria:
In text-focused teaching practices:
(a) Selection of texts:
Teacher selects texts. Freebody, Luke and Gilbert (1991: 451) suggest that
teachers should select “erroneous, overtly ideological texts that endanger
disagreement among students’ prior ideological schemas and those of the text”.
Also, “the teaching of multiple texts and genres within the boundaries of
the single lesson or theme” are advised (Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991:
(b) Interrogation of texts:
Interrogation should follow through “systematic manipulations of patterns
of classroom discourse” … “lesson activities that engage students in asking
questions of text and of each other, rather than teachers in asking questions
of students” (Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991: 451).
Freebody, Luke and Gilbert specify the teaching objectives as “for students
to learn and argue with texts, to see how textual discourses can make, twist,
and remake reality” (Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991: 451).
Practices that make engagement in the
world their primary focus
(a) Selection of texts:
Reality-focused model presents a dynamic learning model where students are
challenged by the demands of the project that they undertake. In this model,
the problems that students face are created as a result of their understanding
of these demands and their attempts to respond to them on an informed basis.
As a result, in this model, the problem of the choice of text does not arise
as teachers are no longer in a decision-making power regarding the value of
the texts that students should read. Instead, students’ selections are motivated
by the challenges that they encounter in the course of the project and their
attempts to solve them.
(b) Interrogation of texts:
The interactional structures between teachers and students are less critical
in this model. This is so because the relevance of student-teacher interactions
is diluted by other points of view. In the proposed model, the teacher’s role
is to provide yet another challenge rather than a voice that guides.
In this model, texts do not function as sources of knowledge about reality.
That is to say, in reality-based model the objective is not for students to
identify the sources and biases in texts. It is arguable that such an analysis
would invite infinite points of interpretation considering the diversity of
sources of the potential biases on which authors can build their texts.
Thus rather than criticise texts, the goal in this model is for students
to learn to work with texts. In other words, the desired objective is for
students to learn to analyse texts with the aim of searching in those texts
for means that would help students enhance their interactions with the world
around them. The project provides a trigger for such interactions and explorations.
Now, students no longer have to produce decontextualised, abstract and potentially
endless critiques of texts. Instead, the objective is for students to engage
in reading and writing activities as a result of demands, challenges and needs
that they experience in the context of their interactions with the conditions
Students’ analyses then are no longer informed by readings that teachers
select as part of a specific lesson or course or by questions that these selected
readings raise in students and their peers. Instead, they are informed by
questions that students experience and follow up in order to cope with the
demands of the project.
These questions give students’ analyses not only a focus but also a context
for further explorations. The end product consists of understandings that
are directed at reality as students experience it rather than at the world
as teachers’ reading selections seem to represent.
The concept of critical thinking in
a reality-based model
The environments that make engagement in the world their primary focus offer
conditions where students do not study abstract concepts but, instead, search
for the means that help them to integrate their knowledge in the contexts
of their actions. The objective in such environments is not to create beliefs
in students. Rather, the aim is for students to confront, compare and contrast
the kinds of preconceptions which limit their capacity to affect others in
ways that demand consideration and an informed response.
In this perspective and for the purpose of this project, critical thinking
is defined as a process of expansion of the frames of reference that limit
rather than open up students’ capacities to act in a manner that considered
and as such powerful. The aim of critical thinking is not to prove one’s truth
(or point) but to encourage a dialogue (i.e. having one’s point of view considered)
in order to resist the truth (i.e. prejudices that are limiting and as such
In the process, the aim is to articulate the bases of the beliefs in terms
of which we act, with the purpose of understanding better the limiting and
the enabling possibilities that they engender. The object of critical thinking
is not to as much to gain a greater understanding but to look for means that
help open up richer ways for working with the original problem.
The Thai News Network project
From the discussion above it would follows that a learning
environment concerned with the development of reading skills cannot be reduced
to a simple activity of reading texts for the sake of accumulating the perspectives
for their potential interpretations. If the aim of education is to create
students that are able to engage the dynamics of the world around them, it
is therefore the sense of freedom that comes from this ability that educational
institutions should make possible rather than anything else.
The aim behind the Thai News Network project has been to create conditions
that would engage individuals and groups in the task of identifying a number
of avenues that would give them a sense that they were in control of their
future and that they could affect it in ways whose impact shows to be productive
to others and therefore also to themselves. The Thai News Network project
offers learning conditions similar to those of a macrotask (cf. Lian and Mestre,
1985). The essence of a macrotask is to engage students in projects whose
focus, structure and outcomes are regulated by students’ interactions and
interrogations. Learning is a function of those interactions.
The macrotask with which this study sought to experiment was for students
to create a News Channel, TNN (a play on CNN), Thai News Network. The project
was Internet-based. It involved a group of about 35 students at the University
of Khon Kaen. The number of students was limited by the project manager but
there was no shortage of students willing to take part in the experiment.
The popularity that the project enjoyed grew out of the pilot experiment that
preceded the main study and created astonishing curiosity and interests among
the Khon Kaen University students and staff. The project continues to run
even though the experiment is long finished and the project staff manager
left Thailand to continue her study in Australia.
While the staff involved in the project recognise that it would be desirable
for students to select whatever projects they wish to follow up, it is also
true that project-based work is rather new to most students whether in Thailand
or Australia. On the positive side, the macrotask of creating a TNN channel
left enough room for students to experiment with different aspects of the
production and with different kinds of interactions. We would like to suggest
that, if introduced properly, most macrotasks provide a wide range of choices
for students to shape the project in the direction that suits them.
The structure of the TNN-project had two components. The first phase of
the project focused on understanding the project itself, collecting information,
discussing and sifting through the possibilities that students’ discussions
and interrogations revealed. The second phase of the project was the production
of the news segments. As reported by students, the objective to produce articles
and items that in their structure and form would be accessible to the wider
public and would affect public opinion was more challenging than writing an
essay. The objective behind the production phase was exactly to encourage
students to interrogate the powers of their discourses in ways that would
challenge them beyond the demands of essay-writing.
Examples of the activities that the project involved are:
(a) Discussing the shape of the project, its title, its
structure, its potential audience.
(b) Analysing the likes and dislikes of the public in
regard to News Channels.
(c) Looking for the stories.
(d) Dividing work into groups.
(e) Collecting the background information for the stories.
(f) Working alone, in groups or with teachers on issues
(g) Consulting members of the public or students from
other subjects in order to obtain more information.
(h) Learning about people and interviewing people, celebrities
(i) Producing critical reviews of the issues in question
by individual students.
(j) General classroom discussions on each story. The aim
was for each student to make a contribution in relation to their own experiences
or readings that they covered in order to produce their own stories.
(k) Writing the final transcripts.
(l) The TNN-Channel was using the Khon Kaen University
computer network. In gratitude, students decided to create advertisements
which would tell people from outside about the university as well as about
the positive aspects of this form of study.
The project was an event in Khon Kaen University. The feedback from university
staff, students and public was immense. The project is now in the second stage
of development where it is now the students themselves, without staff support,
who are taking control over the running of the channel. Part of this evolutionary
process will involve incorporating the feedback of the public into the stories
produced on the Channel.
In considering the quantity and quality of work that students had to undertake,
the following reflect the kinds of concerns that students had to consider
(a) The dynamics of the conditions which they sought to
affect while reporting.
(b) Examples of stories from the existing news channels.
(c) Historical and sociological background behind those
and their own stories..
(d) Examples of advertisements and messages that they
aim to send to people.
(e) An understanding of the relationship between the structure
of the story, the channel itself and the kinds of audiences which they sought
Overall, the role of the Channel was to function as a bridge between students’
reading activities and, in turn, the means that they selected in order for
their texts to be received critically by their audience. As this two-way effect
illustrates, the learning environment of the TNN-Channel presented students
with the conditions where students never work in isolation. Instead, what
they did, and how, was always constructed in relation to the larger context
which they sought to impact and which therefore provided them with the opportunity
to expand the concerns in terms of which they formulated the problems and
Students were not left alone in the task of preparing
their bulletin. The support structures which students had to their disposal
were broad. The objective has been to diversify the sources of the reference
contexts in terms of which students could evaluate their own understandings
and those of others. Examples of the support structures that were made available
(a) A team of teachers whose task was to offer to students
different perspectives on issues. The perspectives involved historical, cultural
and socio-political bases behind the organisation of texts and the reference
logics on which they build (as suggested in Freebody, Luke and Gilbert, 1991:451).
(b) Exercises designed to give students access to tools
of discursive analysis that help to sensitise learners to concepts such as
ideology, genre, strategic manipulation of specific lexicogrammatical structures,
manipulation of emotions etc.
(c) Access to diverse texts from diverse sources (print,
(d) Access to specialised texts such as reviews of CNN
or other news channels. The aim is to collect resources which can help students
in their explorations of the potential structure and objectives behind TNN;
(e) Access to community members who can express different
opinions on different issues;
(f) Access to specialised group members such as journalists
who can provide students with a number of ideas.
Evaluation of the TNN-project
As indicated above, the aim of the TNN-project was
for students to affect the public opinion and in the process their own perspectives
on life. This broad focus makes it impossible to evaluate the effects of the
project in terms of a specific checklist of criteria that could be depicted
as telling the difference between a critical and not critical action.
However, while it is true that it is impossible to unravel everything that
the TNN-project might or might not have helped to generate in students, the
purpose of this study has been to inquire whether the conditions of the TNN-project
were challenging enough to help students to think outside their usual frames
of mind. Furthermore, the objective was to map the quality of learners’ work
in terms of a diversity of the sources of reference that they impacted upon.
The evaluation phase of the project is still being conducted as the project
finished in March, 2003 and will be completed by May, 2003. However, a few
things can be said in regard to the methodology of the evaluation process
itself. The evaluation will look separately at the phase one and phase two
of the project. Students’ individual essay productions will be looked at.
Also, classroom discussions were filmed and will be evaluated. The assessment
of the first phase focuses on students’ growth in the course of the project.
Specifically, the assessment will examine whether students’ arguments during
phase one increased in the complexity as the project was moving on. As for
phase two, students’ productions will be analysed in terms of the complexity
of the issues that they selected, the breadth of the arguments that they developed
and the ability of students to organise information in a way that corresponds
to the expectations regarding the form of the bulletin that they created.
In order to extend the assessment process beyond the expectations of the
project managers, members of general public were also asked to express opinions
on the program itself. While their responses were extremely positive, their
feedback will also be organised in relation to the kinds of criteria that
they mentioned as relevant and counting. People who were asked to participate
in the process of assessment were:
(a) The general public which was intended to be the viewers
of the TNN-Channel.
(b) Students participating in the project themselves;
(c) Students from within and outside the university who
have viewed the TNN-channel but who have not participated in the project;
(d) People from within and outside the university; and
(e) Teachers participating in the project and teachers
who teach regular literacy classes;
(f) Potential unpredictable forces that cannot be determined
prior to the running of the project.
Also below are examples of some questions that were asked of the students
participating in the project and members of the general public. The questions
are rather open-ended and have the function of triggering elaborate replies
and analyses rather than simple Yes or No answers. The questions are:
- What do students themselves say about the things that
they have learned in the process of going through and reflecting upon the
shape of the projects that they have undertaken?
- How do students feel about the work that they have gone
through in comparison to work conducted by students from regular literacy
- What do people who were outside of the project but who
have witnessed its production say about the things that they have learned
as a result of the project?
- How do people outside of the project compare students’
production in the TNN-project and the work conducted by students from regular
- How helpful did students find the support structures
that were provided?
- How helpful had it been for students to exchange points
of view between students who belonged to different or the same activity groups?
- Has the project changed anyone? What kinds of reactions
did it trigger in people?
The macrotask of students creating the TNN-broadcasting
channel was selected for the study as an environment that was able to create
motivating conditions for students to engage the world, also, with the aim
to affect it. The expectations behind the TNN-project can be summarised as
· The TNN-project was expected to engage students
in activities that were challenging to them.
· The activities within the TNN-project were not
constructed in terms of abstract, pedagogic goals. Instead, they emerged as
the demands that the project imposed on students became more apparent to
· The task of creating a broadcasting TV-News Channel
put the responsibility on students to explore the kinds of activities that
would make the production of broadcasts not only possible but also constructive
· Within the project, teachers’ role was not to
guide learners or to teach them. Rather it was to set up conditions that had
the potential to challenge learners’ perspectives and thereby contribute to
students’ further learning.
The aim of this study was not to offer definite answers as to what teachers
should be doing in their teaching environments. Rather, the aim was to experiment
with an alternative learning model and present it as an option or a choice
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