Mud Ball: Reflections on Teaching Critical Thinking

by Leora Freedman, University of Toronto,

I’ve been reflecting lately on the teaching of critical thinking and its significance to language learning.  In the drop-in English classes I teach for multilingual undergraduates on the St. George campus of University of Toronto, critical thinking is woven into all of our activities.  Faculty of Arts and Science students have been coming to our “Communication Café”* in increasingly large numbers to practice and develop their English in relation to topics ranging from science fraud to conceptual art.  In watching this process unfold, I’ve come to the conclusion that the effective teaching of critical thinking to language learners requires what artists call “negative space.”  This is the space that is not the object in the picture; it is the background or space delineated by the object.  Negative space influences our seeing, and it may be manipulated intentionally by the artist.

In discussing plagiarism prevention, DeSena (2007) uses this same artistic concept to denote the expanse of existing knowledge (secondary sources) against which students must learn to forge a design, or viewpoint, of their own.  I would add that as instructors, we can also imagine ourselves as part of the negative space.  We can work to ensure that students push outward to express their own individual concepts, which we in turn should hold, enhance, and make room for rather than overwhelm.  In doing so, we foster language acquisition.

One recent “Café” was based around Creamier II, a book containing reproductions of the work of young artists from around the world.  Much of the work is conceptual, as was the first piece we discussed, Rosa-Chancho’s “Mud Ball.”  The work is a three-ton ball of mud, suspended from the ceiling of a white gallery. (See  After some introductory remarks about conceptual art, I challenged the students to respond not only to this piece but also to the curator’s remarks and the artists’ explanations.  Like Casanave & Sosa (2008), I believe that grappling with difficult concepts in English is essential to our students’ linguistic progress, and that speaking about complex ideas can motivate and deepen students’ academic writing.

Initially, they shrugged and were silent.  So I suggested approaching a work of art first on the most basic level:  Do you like it, or not?  They seemed to be waiting for me to tell them whether they were supposed to like it.  The TAs I work with frequently mention this:  Students are afraid of being wrong, and not only about something as esoteric as Mud Ball.  Finally one student said he did not like it, that it looked just like a big ball of caca.  When I didn’t object, other students felt they had the idea, and a discussion ensued.  They said, essentially, that this piece was an elaborate scam, connoting the futility of art or any kind of action.  Then they were ready to move on to the next picture.

However, one student hadn’t said anything, so I asked him, “Do you agree?”  He replied “No.”  It turned out that he liked Mud Ball.  What’s more, he saw it in a completely different way.  To him, it was the earth, spinning in space, seen from a distance.  He spoke slowly, and as he talked about the piece, his speech became poetic. Mud Ball could be seen as an environmentalist message, he said.  It spoke of the possibilities of the earth and the danger of the obliteration of life.  By the time he finished, some of the others were persuaded to see the piece as more of a provocation than a scam.  Many of them noted down new vocabulary words.  Even those who didn’t agree contributed more complex statements than they’d made originally.

I believe it was the negative space in our discussion that benefited them.  This space included moments of receptive silence.  Particularly with students who may or may not be thinking in English, it’s essential that we approach a discussion with patience and without seeming concerned about their inevitable errors.  As Leki (2001) points out, it is in this experience of engaging in a struggle for meaning that language acquisition is pushed beyond the realm of “skills.”  Ultimately, these experiences will show in their writing.

It is also helpful to build negative space into teaching by becoming more conscious of what one can “not-say” or of what students are “not-saying.”  For example, consider how this discussion would have differed had I tried to show that Mud Ball exemplifies the superior relevance of conceptual art, thus signaling an expected approach. In the process of trying to create meaning, a student is more likely to reach for the unknown and progress in linguistic competence (Zamel, 2004). If I’d emphasized personal theoretical tendencies, would the students have had enough negative space around their own thoughts to start reaching for the language they needed?

Parallel to this is the necessity of being aware of students’ need for the scaffolding provided by what may feel like an intrusion into their part of the “design.”  Knowing when to scaffold a conversation is not always easy.  For example, this speaking activity would have turned out differently had I not challenged the quiet student with a direct question.  The Communication Café has the relaxed atmosphere of a non-credit activity, and I’ve learned that most quiet students are just waiting to be pushed into taking up a bit more space.  This might be riskier in a credit class or tutorial.  Yet at the same time, I’m surprised by how frequently students say they don’t feel free to ask questions or express individual interpretations in class discussions.  It is very likely that this inhibition affects their writing.  Ways must be found to create more imaginative and challenging, more consciously shaped negative space around our students.  They need it.


* The English Language Learning (ELL) Communication Café on the St. George campus is based on the well-known model of Dr. Elaine Khoo’s English Language Development (ELD) Communication Café at University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC).

Casanave, C.P. & Sosa, M. (2008).  Getting in line:  The challenge (and importance) of speaking and writing about difficult ideas.  In D. Belcher & A. Hirvela (Eds.), The oral-literate connection:  Perspectives on L2 speaking, writing, and other media interactions (pp. 87-109).  Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press.

DeSena, L.H. (2007).  Preventing plagiarism:  Tips and techniques, (pp.110-111). Urbana, Illinois:  National Council of Teachers of English.

Leki, I. (2001).  Reciprocal themes in ESL reading and writing.  In T. Silva & P.K. Matsuda, (Eds.), Landmark essays on ESL writing (pp. 173-190). Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Zamel, V. (2004).  Strangers in academia:  The experiences of faculty and ESOL students across the curriculum.  In V. Zamel & R. Spack (Eds.), Crossing the curriculum:  Multilingual learners in college classrooms (pp.3-37).  Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

NOTE: This piece was peer-reviewed for inclusion in the Inkshed Newsletter. Thanks to the reviewers for their editorial suggestions, and to Leora Freedman for taking them up.

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