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Thai News Network Unincorporated: Critical thinking in a Thai reading programs
A project directed by
Maliwan Buranapatana (Khon Kaen University Thailand, University of Canberra, Australia)
Ania Lian (University of Canberra and University of Queensland, Australia)

(Copyright Ania Lian and
Maliwan Buranapatana, 2003)
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 objectives 
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 and Gilbert:
“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 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 or another.

·    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 reactions.

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).

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 literacy
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: 452).

(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).

(c)    Outcomes
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.

(c)    Outcomes
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 around them.

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 disempowering).

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 of concern.
(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 etc
(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 and evaluate:

(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 to affect. 

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 their solutions.

Support structures
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 were:

(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, audio, video).
(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 classes?
-    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 literacy classes?
-    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 follows:
·    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 them.
·    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 to others.
·    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 for others.

  • Bourdieu, P. 1991, Language and symbolic power. Harvard University Press
  • Cooks, L.M. 1995, ‘Dis-integrating pedagogies? Critical theory and instructional practice. in CommOddities: A Journal of Communication & Culture
  • Freebody, P. Luke, A. and Gilbert, P. 1991. 'Reading positions and practices in the classroom'. Curriculum Inquiry, vol. 21, no. 4: 435-457
  • Lian, A., 2002, Technology, pedagogy and prejudice. Paper presented at Thai TESOL, Bangkok, 2002, published in Conference Proceeding  http://www.anialian.com/Technoloy_and_Prejudice.html
  • Lian, A-P. and Lian, A. 1997 'The secret of the Shao-Lin Monk: Contribution to an intellectual framework for language-learning',  in On-CALL, May 1997, pp. 2-19
  • Lian, A-P. and Mestre, M-C. 'Goal-Directed Communicative Interaction and Macrosimulation', in Revue de Phonétique Appliquée, Paris, Didier, 1985,  nos. 73-75, pp. 185-210
  • New London Group, 1995. A pedagogy of multiliteracies: designing social futures. Sydney. NLLIA Occasional Paper No.1.


Copyright © Ania Lian 2002