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Importance of critical thinking

Health and Physical Education in the New Zealand Curriculum (1999) defines critical thinking as "examining, questioning, evaluating, and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about issues and practices" and critical action as "action based on critical thinking" (page 56).

By adopting this definition of critical thinking and applying their learning in education contexts, students can:

  • become broad and adventurous thinkers
  • generate innovative solutions
  • use their reasoning skills to analyse and evaluate
  • plan and think strategically

Critical thinking enables students to:

  • think about and evaluate their own thinking and behaviour on issues related to health education, physical education, and home economics
  • make reasonable and defensible decisions about issues related to individual and community well-being
  • challenge and take action (individually and collectively) to address social, cultural, economic, and political inequalities
  • understand the role and significance of the movement culture and its influence on our daily lives and the lives of people in our community

In order to help their students to develop critical-thinking skills and to take critical action, teachers need to:

  • have a sound knowledge base from which to support students as they delve more deeply into content
  • remain open to challenge by students, not representing themselves as the sole source of knowledge
  • encourage students to look at the big picture by engaging them in critical-thinking processes that have relevance beyond the classroom
  • be prepared to listen to voices that originate in the classroom and to use students' personal experiences as starting points for gathering information
  • encourage students to question and challenge existing beliefs, structures, and practices
  • avoid offering 'how to do it' approaches
  • encourage students to be sensitive to the feelings of others
  • provide opportunities for inquiry by giving students time for planning, processing, and debriefing
  • structure lessons so that students can work safely and co-operatively and develop creative forms of shared responsibility
  • encourage students to take critical action. When students learn to use democratic processes inside the classroom, they can transfer these to situations outside the classroom

(The list above is based on Smyth (2000), page 507.)

For students, learning to think critically and to take critical action will include:

  • learning to take responsibility for analysing and evaluating information
  • giving each other feedback about their analyses, evaluations, and actions
  • questioning and challenging each other's assumptions in a non-threatening manner
  • learning to identify any inequalities and power relationships within contexts in health education, physical education, and home economics, focusing on how these positions are sometimes reinforced through organisational structures and through certain forms of language
  • reflecting on people's assumptions, beliefs, and behaviours, taking into account a range of factors
  • generating alternative solutions and accepting them or critiquing them in a sensitive manner
  • developing the confidence to work with others in taking critical action

(The list above is based on Smyth (2000), page 507.)

A description of models for teaching and learning in physical education that illustrates a continuum of approaches, from a 'teaching by telling' approach to an approach that requires teachers and students to engage in critical thinking, can be found in Appendix 3. A more complex model for critical thinking that is relevant for physical education and involves using the socio-ecological perspective can be found in Gillespie and Culpan (2000), pages 84–96.


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