Critical thinking in practice

Written by: Dr John Hopkin | Published:
Image: MA Education

A recent CPD project looked at practical strategies and understanding for critical thinking. Dr John Hopkin has compiled case studies of the work participants undertook in their schools and the outcomes...

Has there ever been a time when critical thinking seemed more important? Last term, several hundred teachers took part in free CPD from the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms programme, developing their understanding and practical strategies for critical thinking.

A key part of the training, run by the Geographical Association and SSAT, was the opportunity to try something out in the classroom and share the results. In this article, teachers from a range of subjects reflect on what they learned from the course and the impact it had on students’ learning.

Digital literacy and critical thinking
Ruth Harding, North Leamington School, Warwickshire

Most students use the internet when researching tasks for home learning, so it is of vital importance that they consume this information critically, and can discern the reliability and bias in a source. The students found an interesting article on the internet and assessed it using a list of questions, before discussing their articles as a whole class. The questions were:

  • Nature – what type of source is it?
  • • Origin – when and who produced the source?
  • • Purpose – why was the source produced?
  • • Challenge – do the conclusions make sense, do they match the evidence and the reasons, and which are the best arguments and why?

The students’ work and engagement was impressive. They produced some excellent answers, critically assessing the article and exploring the balance of fact and opinion. Those who were less successful either trusted the source too much or asserted that, because the article included facts and was based on science, no opinions were presented.

In terms of impact, the students’ work was generally to a high standard, their analysis was of excellent quality and they understood that some websites are more credible than others. In future we will explore how opinion can be presented through facts and data manipulated to present certain facts, and how to identify facts and opinions.

Using critical thinking to make connections between historical sources and events
Amber Nash, Allenbourn Middle School, Dorset

I wanted students to engage in an enquiry where they questioned links between sources and improved their analysis skills. Also, I wanted to relate historical events to current affairs: in particular how our governing system works and how it came to be.

Following a unit looking at the Tudors’ religious changes, students were asked “What makes a good monarch?” The debate was initially led by teacher questions to encourage higher level thinking. They were then presented with a source image of Charles I, surrounded by a frame of questions linked to Bloom’s, promoting the skills of finding and highlighting evidence. The students were presented with a second source image of Charles I’s public execution. The main question was “Why did the English kill their king?”. Students were guided through sentence stems and questions to draw links between the sources, before using a skeleton planning frame to analyse the influence of different causes.

This project encouraged discussion and the development of historical skills across the ability range. All pupils transferred the evaluation skills to the second source – mostly independently. Interesting discussion threads followed in paired and group work, and students linked prior learning about the Tudors and the development of power for Parliament.

Lower attainers gained confidence from hearing peers frame their questions and responses, while higher attainers began quickly to develop even higher order questioning, such as analysing the purpose of the source image of Charles 1.

This project demonstrated the importance of critical thinking skills to improve students’ experience and learning in history. I came to realise that I now need to make this explicit through my teaching and the resources that I use to give students reference points and tools to become independent learners.

Exploring questioning techniques to support critical thinking
Carrie Carter, Chesterton Community College, Cambridge

We wanted to identify a variety of questioning techniques to support learning, and to see how students form an answer to a GCSE exam question. I wanted students to develop ideas and think more critically about their responses to questions, to explore sources of evidence and to think about them being subject to bias. I explored a number of strategies: “Layers of inference”, “Levelled spider diagram”, “Pose, pause, pounce, bounce”, “Kahoot”, and a role-play debate.

As a result of the project, students’ responses to the exam question were stronger with more developed ideas, and their verbal responses in debate were very detailed and critical.

This project had a strong and important impact on my teaching. It helped me to think more critically about planning lessons, ensuring I had more questioning techniques to encourage student participation, get them to develop ideas further and think more critically about different sources of evidence, as they can be subject to bias.

Using critical thinking to underpin enquiry
Kelly Peppin, Christ the King Catholic High School and Sixth Form Centre, Merseyside

We wanted to challenge students’ perceptions and ideas of prior geographical knowledge, and improve their enquiry skills in looking at data and facts. I set a question: “Could the earth experience another ice age?”

Students classified cards with a range of facts, opinions and graphs, identified any bias in the evidence, then structured their understanding using a writing frame, linking both sides of the arguments. We completed the task by writing this up as an extended piece of writing.

Students were engaged with the topic as it challenged their prior knowledge: “An ice age cannot happen as global warming is making our planet warmer.” It challenged students not to take information at face value and to question the reliability of sources of information, and as a result their extended writing was much more in depth and of a higher quality.

We will embed critical thinking further in order to boost students’ enquiry skills, as we believe this will be more valuable when tackling new GCSE questions. I believe the quality of my teaching has improved: when teachers take risks in lessons it is very rewarding.

Using infographics to support critical thinking and argumentation
Efrosyni Soumelidis Simms, Failsworth School, Greater Manchester

I used infographics to promote critical thinking in GCSE citizenship, from years 9 to 11, embedding these into lessons. The aim was to encourage and develop students’ ability to answer critical and controversial questions and to be able to create their own, using infographics as their stimuli.

After generating their own questions from the infographic, students used an argument frame to reorder and structure their answers, research and opinion on the topic. These were useful to develop students’ ability to analyse and compare different sources of information, and to categorise the different types of arguments and opinions that could be formulated from studying the infographic.

I was able to measure the impact, and found that all 60 students made significant progress, including in the quality of written communication, depth and expansion of ideas and knowledge of the topic, and their ability to identify and detail different categories of argument. Students were very engaged and responsive to the infographics and welcomed the argument frames to support their opinion-writing. These have now become common practice in my teaching.

A critical approach to essay writing in year 12
Deb Wiltshire, Abbeyfield School, Chippenham

We wanted to challenge our students to produce a more rounded and complete answer to an essay stimulus including individual opinions, comparisons and facts. The students had attempted this essay the week before, but had struggled to produce credible responses.

We introduced six coloured hats, each with a role in how students could reply or state particular evidence. Students then looked at the essays they had drafted previously, highlighting their work using coloured pens to see if any colour dominated their answers or were less well represented. We then revisited the essay title and discussed improvements, wearing the hats.

Students engaged fully and enthusiastically in the lesson, subsequent follow-up work and in a debrief/student voice activity.

In the short term, the essays were of significantly improved quality: they were more rounded and had complete answers. Subsequent essays have shown a similar awareness of the need for a balanced argument.

Medium term, this more mature writing style will pay dividends for anyone entered at AS this summer. Longer term, we have equipped our students to be more critical thinkers within and outside the classroom; we have introduced to them the need for an understanding of the facts, an appreciation of how these may be interpreted by different interest groups, and the need for them to come to their own position.

  • Dr John Hopkin is head of accreditation at the Geographical Association and leads the GA’s work for Connecting Classrooms

Further information

The GA-SSAT critical thinking training is available until early 2018 for school-based training or two-day centre-based courses. It is part of the British Council’s international Connecting Classrooms programme, combining free CPD with the chance to share practice through an overseas school visit. For more information, contact and visit


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