Modern Languages and the development of student criticality (28 May 2004)

Date: 28 May, 2004
Location: CILT, London
Event type: Seminar

Programme | Event report

Past event summary

Modern Language degrees clearly represent life changing experiences for most students, but their benefits in academic and developmental terms remain poorly understood. For the past two years, a group of researchers at the University of Southampton has been responsible for an ESRC-funded project entitled Development of Criticality among Undergraduates in Two Academic Disciplines, which has been investigating the intellectual and social development of Modern Languages undergraduates in the course of their degree programme. On 28 May, the project members presented the provisional findings of this project which relate to the Modern Language undergraduates.

ESRC Economic and Social Research Council University of Southampton

In addition to the project researchers (Ros Mitchell, Brenda Johnston, Florence Myles and Peter Ford), a panel of distinguished experts (Lid King, Naomi Segal, Hilary Footitt, Jim Coleman, Keith Marshall) were discussants for papers and presented their own ideas about the contributions of Modern Language degrees.


Each of the first three presentations lasted for twenty minutes and was followed by ten minutes of comments from the discussants. After that there were thirty minutes for general discussion.

In the concluding session, there was a presentation followed by a panel discussion of 35 minutes.

10.30 -11.00 Coffee and registration
11.00 - 11.10 Introduction to the criticality project
Speaker: Ros Mitchell
11.10 - 12.05 Development of criticality in MLs content courses
Speakers: Brenda Johnston and Florence Myles
Discussant: Professor Naomi Segal
12.05 - 13.00 How language classes contribute to students critical development
Speakers: Christopher Brumfit and Florence Myles
Discussant: Hilary Footit
13.00 - 13.45 Lunch
13.45 - 14.45 The special contribution of the Year Abroad to student critical development
Speakers: Brenda Johnston and Peter Ford
Discussant: Professor Jim Coleman
14.45 - 16.00 Graduate employment for Modern Languages Graduates
Speaker: Keith Marshall
Panel discussion on the implications of the criticality research findings for the future development of Modern Languages degrees
Panel members:
  • Dr Lid King (Chair)
  • Professor Naomi Segal
  • Hilary Footit
  • Professor Jim Coleman
  • Professor Mike Kelly
16.00 - 16.30 Tea and biscuits

Event report: Criticality and the contributions of Modern Language degrees to student development

by Brenda Johnston

Development of criticality in MLs content courses

Rosamond Mitchell and Brenda Johnston (University of Southampton)

In this draft paper the researchers surveyed selections from three different types of evidence in our Modern Languages dataset: lecturer interviews, lecture and seminar transcripts, including student oral presentations, and student written products.

There is considerable convergence across these different types of evidence, all suggesting that the prime contribution of content courses to student development lies in the domain of 'critical reason'. Figure 1 presents a provisional model of the main components of this kind of criticality, showing the interrelated nature of knowledge (data), conceptual frameworks and theories, and personal opinions/ values, in the critical individual.

Figure 1: Criticality

Figure 1: The three elements of criticality: data, structure/theory,  student opinion/views

Work with an explicit focus on criticality may be seen as an attempt to shift students from holders of opinions to users of appropriate, theoretically interpreted and structured data to inform considered views of cultural, social and linguistic phenomena. The three elements above are increasingly brought together into one single experience of incorporating (1) knowledge as data, and (2) interpretation as structural process, into students' formation of their own understandings.

Developmentally, the analysis presented in this paper showed how lecturers work with students to enable them to integrate these different elements. They have worked to develop a range of precursors to criticality, that is skills and knowledge without which criticality cannot take place, but which do not themselves guarantee criticality.

The precursors are :

  • students' background knowledge and conceptual frameworks relevant to subdisciplines within the field;
  • students target language skills, including literary and academic registers relevant for accessing both primary and secondary sources;
  • students analytical skills, again in different subdisciplines;
  • students academic writing skills, including formal academic conventions.


In their own lecturing they are modelling aspects of criticality : posing questions and marshalling both theory and data in answering them, critiquing concepts and theories, presenting alternative analyses, demonstrating the dynamic nature of theory and interpretation. In seminars, feedback on student outputs etc, they are aiming to challenge and scaffold students in undertaking the same processes. Guided criticality is central to the teaching and learning process, i.e. students learning to undertake increasingly ambitious investigations with lecturer-posed questions. Independent criticality is the target end point, with students able to form their own questions and problems, and develop substantial reasoned responses which connect up opinion, data and theory.

The student reaction to all of this is tentative at first, with Y1 students able to express personal responses but perhaps not making the most of their pre-existing critical abilities, in this new environment. But our case studies clearly show how students settle down and engage with disciplinary critical inquiry. While our focus here is on critical reason, non-cognitive elements are key to this: student motivation and confidence are essential ingredients. To what extent students grow concurrently in self awareness and in intercultural awareness and develop a questioning attitude towards life' all desired goals expressed by lecturers in interview is not revealed by the analyses undertaken for this particular paper, and must await further exploration e.g. of the student interview corpus.

The full paper can be accessed on the Criticality project website (

How language classes contribute to students' critical development

Florence Myles and Christopher Brumfit

This was a preliminary paper based on a partial analysis of data relating to language learning in the university called Westford. The presenters explored the way in which the language programme specifically aimed to foster the learning of language as a tool for cultural exchange/analysis at the highest level. Unlike strictly skill-based courses for, say, business French or holiday Spanish, a large part of the language curriculum was aimed at giving learners the linguistic tools to behave as critical beings in other' cultures.

The research questions underlying this paper were as follows:

  • Is a concern for critical development evident in the language curriculum?
  • If so, how is critical development fostered in the language programmes?
  • Are there signs of criticality in the language classes / language work produced by the students?
  • What is the relationship between the language curriculum and the content' curriculum in relation to the concept critical development'?


The paper was based on an analysis of (a) course descriptors, (b) marking criteria, (c) student interviews and (d) language tutors' interviews. As the researchers had not yet been able to analyse the available written work, the paper did not include analyses of students' written performance. Consequently, the paper primarily addressed the first two questions, though the presenters discussed the final one as a problem issue' in the last section.

The presenters argued that although much of the language curriculum is, quite understandably, primarily skill- and knowledge- based, especially in the lower levels, there is nonetheless a clear progression as we go up the levels along the dimensions relevant to criticality.

The presenters reported that the importance of academic writing skills in the L2 becomes increasingly significant, and the language curriculum increasingly forefronts analytical and critical skills, along 3 dimensions:

  • level of abstractness;
  • argumentative skills;
  • originality of ideas.


The language curriculum puts much emphasis on independence and self-criticism, throughout the stages. This is evident in all the course documentation, as well as in students' and lecturers' interviews.

In conclusion the presenters suggested that it is clear that the language programme is very much geared towards giving the students the L2 linguistic tools enabling them to use the critical/analytical skills required of them in the content courses. It does this partly by the content chosen, partly by the emphasis on self-awareness and development of linguistic competence, and partly by teaching the styles of disciplinary-critical discourse in the target language.

The full paper can be accessed on the Criticality project website (

The special contribution of the Year Abroad to student critical development

Brenda Johnston and Peter Ford

The year abroad component has faced many challenges in recent years. It clearly represents a life-changing experience for most students, but its benefits in academic and developmental terms remain poorly understood.

This paper illustrated the central importance of the year abroad to the undergraduate language degree, drawing on research evidence arising from an ESRC funded project of the development of criticality in undergraduates and placing the evidence within a theoretical framework.

The paper took as a starting point a theoretical framework suggested by Ron Barnett (1997) which focuses on the development of criticality, a central aim of higher education. He suggests that criticality should be understood over a range of domains (reason, self and the world), rather than just the domain of reason and formal knowledge.

Stern wrote that the Year Abroad tended to be looked down on as necessary for the student to pick up the language. It is usually regarded as academically rather a waste of time (Stern 1964 qtd in Coleman 1996, p.69). In contrast, the presenters argued that the Year Abroad changes the students in various, often interconnected, ways. These changes impinge on their final year of study and the criticality they practise there as well as the identity, the persona and related capacities to be critical which they take forward to their future lives.

The presenters argued that the self undergoes considerable changes in the students during the Year Abroad and that this encourages the development of individuals more able to grapple with criticality as is required of them in higher education in terms of personal qualities and abilities to relate to wider experiences and conceptual frameworks than hitherto. The changes in the self are threefold. Firstly, the students face quite considerable problems, of one type or another, during the Year Abroad. They are required to develop extensive problem-solving skills and to draw on personal resources. In surviving this process, students tend to develop enhanced confidence in their ability to survive difficulties, to be more willing to take risks. These are characteristics required in criticality, especially at the higher levels. Secondly, and sometimes related to the first point, the students are exposed to a different culture which challenges their existing views of the world. Sometimes these challenges are difficult and uncomfortable. Capacity to challenge existing formulations and to be aware of, understand and evaluate alternative viewpoints is required at higher levels of criticality. Thirdly, the students' language improves. This is more than a technical skill, given (a) the close relationship between language and cultural awareness; (b) the links between language and the ability to access and process information; and (c) the role of language in mediating experience. The enhanced language facility enables the students to engage more meaningfully with a wider range of issues in their final year at university. They may acquire the ability to use linguistic concepts from an unfamiliar culture in ways which enable them to think in new ways in terms of that culture. Language can also be viewed as a basic knowledge resource.

The students' detailed self-report in interviews, as well as the views of lecturers, and the evidence provided by our examination of language and content classes supports the above interpretation as we will discuss in the following sections of the paper.

The presenters noted two important points. Firstly, the process described above works more or less effectively for different students according to: (1) their individual starting points in terms of resources, knowledge and skills, (2) individual effort during the Year Abroad, and (3) the nature of the opportunities offered by the context in which they are placed. There are situations which offer more or less scope for different types of development. Moreover, there are some students for whom the developmental process described above does not work or happens in an impaired form. For vulnerable students, the challenges may even be too fierce as our case study student, Tracey, illustrates. Secondly, the developmental successes of the Year Abroad should not prevent us from probing its limitations and missed opportunities as far as our case study students are concerned. The cases discussed below highlight some gaps where one might expect more development of connections between formal knowledge as presented in university and experience abroad and vice versa.

The full paper can be accessed on the Criticality project website (