Thinking critically

Thinking about critical thinking

John Hopkin, Head of Accreditation at the Geographical Association (GA), discusses the importance of critical thinking, what it means and the best way to approach it in the classroom.

Being able to think clearly is important in education, as well as being a very useful skill for life. So critical thinking is commonly advocated as being a ‘good thing’, although what critical thinking means, what distinguishes it from ordinary thinking and how best to teach it are often unclear and sometimes disputed. However at this particular moment, bombarded with information and ideas from all directions – from sources of varying credibility or none, it is surely timely for young people to have the opportunity to improve their critical thinking skills.

Here at the GA we’ve taken a careful look at what critical thinking means, what it has to offer learners and how best to support it in the classroom. Partly the stimulus for this has been our partnership in the Global Learning Programmes in England and Wales, and in the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms programme.

One principle we’ve been working on is that critical thinking is a disciplined process. As Margaret Roberts[1] points out, it incorporates rigour, rationality and reasoning. Based on Margaret’s work we have developed a working model of critical thinking which includes the three ingredients or dimensions below.

  • Becoming better at thinking
  • Making better sense of information
  • Becoming a more open thinker

Having a model to start from has the advantage that particular strategies can be taught to improve aspects of thinking in each of these three dimensions; an example would be teaching how to make better arguments, to improve reasoning and help become a more open thinker. Moreover, having a model helps emphasise that critical thinking is an organised process which pupils need inducting into. And thinking about geography, science or other parts of the curriculum which emphasise investigation, this model also maps closely to different stages in the process of enquiry.

Another principle we’ve built on is that effective critical thinking combines capability and context. We can’t expect pupils to think critically without support: they need the tools to do so, but these should have purpose and so be applied to the curriculum. So critical thinking is better not approached as an isolated set of skills, nor merely an opportunity for generalised thinking in a vacuum.

Global learning is a good example of a context that provides many opportunities for thinking critically about complex and often controversial issues in a fast-changing contemporary world. This might also include a commitment to critical pedagogy – the notion that critical thinking is emancipatory for individuals, e.g. as citizens, and can be applied to consider social justice and equality. Particularly relevant are the aims of the former Global Learning Programmes to help young people understand their role in an interdependent world, explore ways to make it more just and sustainable, and move from a charity to social justice approach.

Finally it’s worth emphasising the value of critical thinking in supporting academic achievement at all ages – supporting pupils’ understanding and their ability to articulate what they know. Our involvement with training over 800 teachers in the former Connecting Classrooms programme is particularly relevant here – you can find a sample of their work, the strategies developed through the programme and their impact on pupils’ achievement in our critical thinking guide on the GA website.

We’ll be building on this as we’re involved in successor programmes, particularly the Critical Thinking for Achievement programme, where we’re already recruiting teachers from schools in Ofsted categories 3 and 4 for free CPD.

Blog by John Hopkin, Geographical Association


[1] Roberts, M. (2015) ‘Critical thinking and global learning’, Teaching Geography, 40, 2 pp. 55-59

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