Critical thinking activities and ideas

Written by: Rebecca Kitchen | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier/MA Education

In an age of misinformation and in the midst of a global pandemic, critical thinking and judgement have fast become essential life-skills. Rebecca Kitchen reports on a CPD project to improve young people’s critical thinking and discusses some approaches and best practice

The current coronavirus pandemic means that now, more than ever, our newsfeeds are being bombarded with data. There is so much data available from a variety of sources that it is easy to become overwhelmed. There is also the issue of trustworthiness – to what extent should I trust what I am reading and hearing? What are the issues with comparing data from different countries and health systems operating in different contexts that collect data in different ways?

Fortunately, there are a significant number of teachers and their pupils who are well prepared for the critical thinking challenge that this abundance of data provides.

Over the last 18 months, the Geographical Association working in partnership with the Association for Science Education (ASE) engaged more than 1,050 teachers from nearly 400 different schools in their Critical Thinking for Achievement programme.

This plan-do-review CPD focused on knowledge application, the critical use of data, and the construction of evidenced arguments to raise achievement in geography and science.

Funded by the Department for Education (DfE) Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund, it was particularly aimed at priority schools (Ofsted category 3 or 4) and schools within priority areas, including the DfE’s Opportunity Areas. The plan-do-review aspect was particularly important and enabled the programme to meet the DfE’s Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development (2016).

Teachers were introduced to a range of critical thinking activities and ideas and were then able to apply and experiment with them in their own classrooms and with their own pupils. They then returned a couple of months later to share and discuss what they had learned.

This opportunity for focused, professional discussions around practice within a subject-specific context was crucial. Other benefits of this approach were that the experience was sustained, rather than being a one-off.

The Geographical Association has developed the classroom practice section of its website to outline some of the critical thinking ideas that teachers were introduced to as part of the programme and to present a selection of case studies describing how teachers from the early years to key stage 5 used these with their pupils. These resources are open access until the end of the academic year. The remainder of this article will provide a taster of three of these practical activities and will also suggest ideas for best practice that have surfaced throughout the project.

Activity 1: True for who?

The “true for who” technique is designed to support pupils in considering different perspectives on an issue, which enables them to think more critically about it. For example, when considering the production of palm oil, most pupils will instantly consider deforestation and loss of habitats, but may not consider the potential positive impacts for local communities such as income and schooling. Here, an issue is presented to the pupils and possibly some background information, such as data or statistics about palm oil production in this example. Then:

  • Step 1: Pupils are each given a card face down with a role or stakeholder. In the palm oil example, this might be an orangutan, local child, or consumer.
  • Step 2: Pupils consider their role in silence and write two statements about whether they agree or disagree on the issue (e.g. palm oil production is good/bad for me because...)
  • Step 3: Pupils share their points with their group and the group have to guess their role. If they are unable to ascertain this from the pupil’s two points, the remainder of the group can ask questions of that person (without asking them directly who they are, of course).

Activity 2: Argument frames

Argument frames are designed to structure and work through the different stages in making an argument, so helping develop pupils’ understanding, their ability to articulate and communicate their reasoning, as well as being a focus for discussion and analysis.

As with most such frameworks, the aim is to hardwire the approach into pupils’ thinking, for example to include arguments and counter-arguments, and remember evidence and sources, so they can use it independently.

The approach is particularly useful for making and writing balanced arguments, for example to tackle questions with command words such as examine, evaluate and justify in their exams, where a common weakness is to put forward only one perspective.

Argument frame: A tool to help students structure and work through the different stages in making an argument

Activity 3: Continuum line

A continuum line can be used as a whole class activity where the two extremes of the continuum are written on opposite walls of the classroom. The teacher provides a statement for discussion and pupils stand between the two extremes at the point which best represents their opinion.

For example, the two extremes of the continuum could be “always” and “never”, and the statement could be: “The number of tourists in the Lake District should be restricted.” The teacher then questions some pupils to understand why they have stood at particular points on the continuum.

Alternatively, a continuum line can be used as an individual or paired activity. Pupils are given a number of statements which they place along the continuum before explaining their positioning. So, taking the example above, pupils may be given several different types of tourist management – parking charges, zoning, developing tourist facilities – and are asked to put them on a continuum between “effective” and “not effective”.

Best practice advice

For those schools and teachers who are interested in embedding critical thinking strategies within their practice, the following suggestions emerged from the project and may prove useful:

  • Critical thinking is for all pupils, not just more successful learners or those with considerable social capital. Some teachers were initially sceptical that their pupils would be able to benefit from the techniques, but with scaffolding and modelling they found that all pupils were able to access aspects of critical thinking. Indeed, some teachers reported that it was often those pupils that they least expected to engage who made the greatest gains.
  • Knowledge and understanding is critical. Critical thinking techniques can elicit pupils’ prior knowledge and highlight misconceptions. They can also be used to identify links between concepts and suggest areas for further investigation. However, pupils cannot be expected to think deeply or critically about topics that they know little about. Critical thinking techniques therefore are more powerful and flexible if pupils can hang their existing knowledge and understanding onto them.

To be a good geographer or scientist necessarily involves thinking critically about the world – so critical thinking is best taught by “infusing” it in the curriculum, rather than treating it as a separate, generic skill. Teachers that embedded critical thinking techniques throughout their teaching said that this did not take up greater amounts of curriculum time. They explained that over time, pupils’ became more independent, were more engaged, and their thinking became more efficient.

  • Rebecca Kitchen is the CPD, curriculum and marketing manager at the Geographical Association.

Further information & resources


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin