EAP, Critical thinking and Climate Change

by Kathryn AstonGISIG Newsletter No. 362017


Man-made climate change is scientifically proven and threatens human life and civilisation. The international agreement, signed at the Paris COP in 2015, gave hope that governments might take action to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the inevitable changes to come thanks to past emissions, such as increased flooding, droughts and extreme weather.

Climate change is relevant to most university disciplines as we seek not only technological solutions but also ways to live more sustainably. The most obvious of these include engineering, architecture, urban planning, agronomy, sociology, politics, and economics; but journalism, education, psychology, theology, philosophy and psychology also have their part to play in helping us manage and make sense of our changing world.

However, at the University of Sheffield, where I work, many departments do not offer modules related to climate change at undergraduate level, and relatively few students conduct research in it later, a pattern likely to be replicated in other British universities. There is also a lack of engagement with climate change in public discourse which may be reflected in the content and focus of university courses in the UK. My own students tend to have poor understanding of the issue and little awareness of how it might affect their futures, much less how their disciplines might contribute to meeting humanity’s greatest challenge.

So the questions that EAP teachers might ask themselves is; how can we help students to see the relevance of climate change to their lives and studies? And how do we use the issue to develop the skills they need to pursue their disciplines? The answer to both of these questions, I think, is to focus on critical thinking skills.

Classroom activities for critical thinking

Students need critical thinking skills to help them with academic reading, writing and debate. These skills include “reflecting on issues in a structured way… [using] insight and logic”; “drawing conclusions about whether arguments are valid and justifiable”; and “presenting a point of view in a structured, clear, well-reasoned way that convinces others” (Cottrell, 2011, p. 2). This kind of thinking does not come entirely naturally, and so training is usually needed. Climate change is a good topic for sharpening these skills, and can be used in the classroom to explore common barriers to critical thinking.

The theory that we each have “two brains”, the “rational brain” and the “emotional brain” (Marshall, 2014) has been used to explain how people can accept on an intellectual level the evidence that climate change is a grave threat, and yet fail to feel it as such, or to act on their concerns. Cottrell (2011, p.1) argues that “personal, emotional or affective reasons can create barriers” to critical thinking; so students should be aware of when their rational thought processes are being influenced by their emotions. Climate change might be used to highlight how it is possible to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time, i.e. that it is simultaneously a serious threat and nothing to worry about. Students could examine how emotional responses, such as denial, hopelessness or fear, might contribute to this irrational position. In class, we might give them some examples of common excuses for not engaging with climate change, such as that the scientists disagree, that is not caused by human activity or that it is the fault of some other group. Teachers might ask them to consider why people might hold these views and how they might be contested.This could be extended into an argument building exercise where students practise some of Cottrell’s critical thinking skills (2011) outlined above.

Another potential barrier to critical thinking is our mental “frames” (Goffman, 1972, cited in Marshall, 2014, p 80). Frames are constructed out of our experience, knowledge and beliefs; they allow us to make sense of new information and help us decide what to pay attention to or ignore. Climate change is a “wicked” problem with no single cause or solution which can be framed in different ways, for example as an economic, technological, energy, social justice, or land use problem (Marshall, 2014).

Framing leads to the rejection of any information that does not fit and so leads to all kinds of cognitive biases. However, the critical thinking skill of “evaluating the evidence for alternative points of view” (Cottrell, 2011, p 2) requires the student to keep an open mind and consider all the information available before coming to a conclusion. It might be useful in class to examine how one issue such as climate change can be “framed” in so many different ways, and how each interpretation of the problem might lead to some of these biases. A good activity for this is the role play, for example a public meeting about whether to allow an energy company to “frack” for shale gas in the local area, with students taking various roles in the debate, such as a representative of the energy company or a local resident worried that the water table might be polluted. However, if you are lucky enough to have the right mix in your class, there may be no need for roles to appreciate different perspectives. A debate with students from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, whose economies depend on fossil fuels, and Malaysia or sub-Saharan Africa, which are likely to be affected by extreme weather that results from burning them, might be very enlightening!

Social cues also tell us how much attention we should pay to an issue. In Europe and the US at least, there is a “socially constructed silence” (Zurubavel, 2006, cited in Marshall 2014, p. 82) around climate change – or what we might call the “elephant in the room”. Climate change has become an unsuitable topic for polite conversation. Perhaps this is because of the strong feelings of hopelessness and anxiety it can arouse, or it may be because a person’s attitudes towards the issue indicate their “in-group” and can therefore be divisive, much like talking about politics or religion.

However, participating in academic debate means students may have to discuss controversial topics, or accept that other people may not share views that for them are unquestionable. Climate change is not as dangerous a taboo as religion, politics or sex, perhaps because it is truly global; it is not about my body or my country or my faith as opposed to yours. (Compare it to abortion as a topic for example, or the political status of Taiwan, or Islamic terrorism). In the classroom, students could examine how the media or their textbooks often fail to engage with climate change and discuss why this might be, so that the typical emotions and social restrictions around such taboos can be safely explored. This discussion could be extended to other cultural taboos that might affect students on their courses, the emotions they might feel around them and how they might be able to speak or write about them with courage, honesty and respect for others’ views.

Incidentally, most EAP books do not exploit the issue satisfactorily, perhaps because of the “taboo” described above. In my department, out of 46 recently-published books from 10 publishers on EAP writing, only four books use the topic in a way that involves the critical thinking skills outlined above. Out of 19 EAP reading books from five publishers, only one engages with the issue in any depth; and another contains a reading text which suggests that climate change may not be happening or may not be caused by human activity. It seems that EAP materials are pitched at the current low level of public understanding and debate about climate change.

Out of class activities

Students can develop their critical reading by doing their own research on climate change, focussing on how it affects their own countries or how their future disciplines can contribute to finding solutions. The Met Office, the BBC, NASA, the UN and many environmental bodies have excellent online resources on climate change, and a research project presents a good opportunity for students to practise such skills as assessing the reliability of sources, synthesising information, and avoiding plagiarism.

Another way to help students see the relevance of climate change to their studies is through pre-sessional projects. At the English Language Teaching Centre at Sheffield University, prospective Master’s students on pre-sessional courses must research and write an academic- style extended essay or report as part of their assessment. Recently, for maximum relevance, the centre has asked their future departments to supply suitable project titles. Departments could therefore be asked to furnish additional questions related to climate change which could be offered to students as an optional alternative.


Climate change is not just an issue for “greens”. It concerns everyone, especially young people who will live with its consequences, like our EAP students. Engaging honestly with climate change in the classroom can help students not only to see themselves as part of the solution, but to develop the academic skills they will need to be successful in whatever they choose to study in the future.


Cottrell, S. (2011) Critical Thinking Skills; Developing Effective Analysis and Argument. (2nd edition) New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Goffman, E. (1974) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Marshall, G. (2014) Don’t even think about it; why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. London: Bloomsbury Press.

Zerubavel, E. (2006) The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

EAP writing books

Bailey, S. (2011) Academic Writing (3rd ed). London: Routledge.
Barton, L. and Sardinas, C.D. (2009) North Star 3 (3rd ed) Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Folse, K. S. and Pugh, T. (2015) Great writing (3rd ed). Boston, Massachussetts: National Geographic Cengage.

Westbrook, C. (2014) Unlock Reading and Writing Skills 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

EAP reading books

Slaght, J. and Harben, P. (2009) English for Academic Study; Reading. (2nd ed). Reading: Garnet.

About the author

Kathryn Aston has been teaching English for Academic Purposes at Sheffield University for 16 years. She is also studying for a Doctorate of Education on ‘EAP and climate change’. [email protected]

2 Responses to EAP, Critical thinking and Climate Change

  1. Dennis Newson July 18, 2017 at 4:18 am #

    I welcome this statement of how critical thinking can be usefully applied to raising the consciousness of a particular group of British university students about climate change. Members of GISIG can use this account as a starting point for working out how to gently introduce critical thinking and global issues into the classroom where they teach.

  2. Bill Templer July 18, 2017 at 7:21 am #

    Those who teach EAP at universities in the UK and elsewhere to students from a range of disciplines — and even just advanced students specialising in English Studies — have a special opportunity to introduce ‘issue’ topics for their students to write on and discuss. I wonder how many members of GISIG are in such a position, teaching EAP regularly like Kathryn. It would be useful for the GISIG Comm. to know.

    The Trump administration and the Republican Party leadership are now involved in a total revision of climate policies, a highly controversial issue in the US not mentioned in the article. Chomsky analyses some of this within a recent lecture at MIT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9ADjCQEk9Q
    Pres. Trump, for example, is calling for an end to the ‘war on coal’ in order to create more jobs in mining. The People’s Climate Movement in the US is organizing against all this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9ADjCQEk9Q Chomsky also comments on the ominous concrete link between climate change and the refugee crisis.

    Israeli-American sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel’s book that Kathryn mentions is very relevant to GI concerns. You can browse the book a bit here: http://goo.gl/cyt3DZ

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