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Critical thinking

‘Critical thinking is an approach to education underpinned by commitment to rigour and rational reasoning.’

Roberts, 2023, p 121

Topics on this page:

  • What is critical thinking?
  • Why is critical thinking important in geography?
  • Developing students’ critical thinking in the geography curriculum
  • Discussion with teachers: critical thinking
  • Critical thinking activities in geography
  • Challenging misinformation
  • Reading

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not about being critical in a negative sense. In the context of the geography classroom, you should see it as ‘better’ thinking. It is the ability to question, think clearly and make reasoned judgements. 

This is considered to be one of the 21st century skills in an information-rich world. David Lambert has succinctly described critical thinking as recognising that ‘things are not always what they seem to be’.

Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They analyse and solve problems systematically. They always seek to determine whether ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture. 

A good critical thinker is open-minded. They know how to separate facts from opinions, how to examine an issue from all sides, how to make rational inferences and how to withhold personal judgment or biases.

Why is critical thinking important in geography?

Leat and McAleavy argue forcefully for the importance of critical thinking in geography. Their view was that we should not be asking if geography can contribute to critical thinking, but rather they believe that the subject is ‘nothing without it’. In the geography classroom, critical thinking it is closely linked with enquiry and thinking geographically.

It encourages students to be open-minded and to think, challenge perceptions and apply newly acquired information. Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed in any context. So, it cannot be taught in the same way as literacy or numeracy. Critical thinking is directly related to the particular subject; it is not content-free. It should be thought of as way to gain deeper and more thoughtful geographical understanding.

The actual questions you would ask as a critical thinker about the destruction of the Amazon rain forest would be different to those you would ask about housing policy in Norfolk. What a geography teacher can do is show students the procedures they can use to begin to think critically in geography about these issues

In England, the new GCSE and A level geography examinations require students to think critically. Critical enquiry is an integral part of thinking like a geographer and it is an essential part of investigative fieldwork. Ofsted suggest that creating opportunities for students to develop critical thinking is an important factor in promoting achievement in geography.

The Geographical Association considers critical thinking involves three key aspects with geographical thought at the core:

Making better sense of information. Critical thinkers examine evidence, consider alternative solutions, distinguish fact from opinion and reach informed conclusions. They practise the three Rs: Rigor, Rationality and Reasoning.

Becoming better at thinking. This involves developing pupils’ curiosity and ability to ask good questions and reflect on their learning – metacognition.

Becoming a more open thinker. Critical thinkers challenge assumptions. They consider bias, different points of view and present reasoned argument. They consider and debate issues, e.g. ethical issues.

Developing students’ critical thinking in the geography curriculum

To create a geography curriculum to promote critical thinking, teachers need to clarify in their own minds: what is a geography critical thinker? What characteristics and capabilities do they demonstrate? Re-read the description in the opening paragraph and highlight what you would wish to prioritise and promote for your students.

Once you have defined the goals, the curriculum should be designed with the achievement of those in mind. What opportunities can be provided for students to go beyond just acquiring knowledge and skills and develop their capability as users of geographical knowledge and skills? Look for geographical contexts where there are several sides to an argument, so that students have opportunities to express and listen to different views.

Explore different pedagogical strategies that give students practice in making informed decisions. Encourage students to approach such tasks with what Hopwood describes as a ‘confident uncertainty’; these are learners who are confident in their geographical knowledge, but aware that there is invariably more to know.

An interesting idea described by Booth (2020) to stimulate critical thinking is to introduce ‘challenge’ moments into lessons. This is when the teacher transforms a lesson by introducing break in the normal lesson knowledge recall to challenge assumptions. 

Booth describes how this broke their normal learning pathway, stretched their understanding and gave students opportunities to make dynamic conceptual links. The students’ enthusiastic response surprised him.

Teachers must ask what key critical thinking skills should we promote: analysis, interpretation, inference, explanation, self-regulation, open-mindedness, problem-solving? Or are there others you believe are equally important. 

What geographical contexts can be used to best enable students not just to make sense of geographical information and ideas but also to reflect on and evaluate that information and ideas critically?

Critical thinking in geography should be developed from key stage 3. Critical thinking is cumulative and a long-term approach is more likely to bring success to students at GCSE and A level. Many schools adopted the idea of critical thinking in geography with the aim to raise the achievement of students in geography and have reported positive effects, as the case studies referred below illustrate.

There are no hard and fast rules for a perfect curriculum to implement critical thinking. Above all, it requires from both teachers and students a commitment to critically engage with geographical content and ideas. 

There are a wide range of  pedagogical practices and resources for curriculum makers to select from to foster this. Some of these have their roots in the Thinking through Geography movement of the 1990s. Refer to the table at the end of this section for activities to use in your teaching, there are so many you will be spoilt for choice!

  • One activity that geography teachers have used successfully is the Silent debate. Read Sloggett (2016) to find out how she managed this activity that was followed by extended writing. She reports that ‘The quality of their writing was much improved, as was the key geographical skill of being able to understand different points of view and explain reasons for them.’ Her ‘thought-provoking statements’ on Antarctica are available from her article.
  • Another of the important techniques for developing critical thinking is Argumentation and you should follow the link for further information about this.

The role of the teacher is crucial in developing students’ criticality. Margaret Roberts suggests how geography departments can adopt a critical pedagogy that encourages ‘debate, dialogue and critical literacy’. In her article she provides guidance and questions for teachers to ask to promote criticality.

  • Read Roberts (2015) for more information on the origins of critical thinking, its characteristics, why it is important in geography teaching and how it can be encouraged in the classroom or field. See the questions bank Questions for Critical Thinking which is based on this article.
  • GA webpage: Critical thinking in the classroom for case studies and ideas for developing critical thinking in lessons.
  • GA project (2015-18): Critical thinking in geography includes background papers, articles, teaching ideas.
  • See Better evaluation of geographical data a PowerPoint from the GA Conference by Gemma Mawdsley. This presentation indicates some of the teaching strategies used with post-16 students to enable critical thinking about geographical information and evaluation of data in enquiries. Download the Better evaluation of data handouts that supported the presentation.

Discuss some examples from Critical thinking in practice with teachers in your school/your mentor:

  • Do the teachers see an important role for critical thinking in geography?
  • Discuss with your geography tutor/mentor where the characteristics of critical thinking in geography identified by the GA (see above) feature in the geography curriculum in your school (or could do).
  • Are these skills routinely developed in the key stage 3 curriculum, or only at key stage 4 and above?
  • How do the teachers deal with ‘misinformation’?
  • What activities have the teachers used to promote critical thinking? Did they think they help to develop students’ criticality in geography?
  • Discuss opportunities to use the questions for critical thinking in some of your lessons.

Critical thinking activities in geography

Activity                                                               Web referenceReferences
Making better sense of information
Flat chatSilent, open-ended, uses visible stimuli for thinking

Becoming a better thinker

Improving literacy through critical thinking

Cannell et al (2018)

TG Aut 2019

Silent Debateactivity for decision-making and reasoning skillsBecoming more open thinkersCannell et al (2018)
Hexagonal linkagesselect, prioritise, categorise and link evidenceCritical thinking and fieldwork 
Becoming better at thinking
Pose, pause, pounce, bounce:Better questioningQuestions in the geography classroomCannell et al (2018)
Give one to get oneengaging all in class discussion Cannell et al (2018)

Double-develop:

‘So what chain’

strategy to encourage writing in depth

Making better sense of information

Critical thinking and fieldwork

Cannell et al (2018)
Questions for critical thinking:more challenging questionsQuestions for Critical ThinkingCannell et al (2018)
Question Generatorset up pupil-led enquiryBecoming a better thinkerCannell et al (2018)TG Aut 2019
Layers of inferenceDeveloping questions to inferLayers of inference 
Becoming a more open thinker
Becoming aware of deep structuresencourages awareness of critical thinking Cannell et al (2018)
Odd One Outidentify commonality and differenceCritical thinking and fieldworkCannell et al (2018)
Plus Minus Interesting (PMIorganising thoughts and ideas for reflectionCritical thinking and fieldworkCannell et al (2018)
True for who?different perspectives on an issueBecoming a better thinker 
Continuum lineLine between extremes as discussion stimulusBecoming more open thinkersRoberts (2023) chapter 8
ArgumentationMaking better arguments

Argumentation

Making better sense of information

Approaching resource based exam questions

Roberts (2023) Ch8

Cannell et al (2018)

Geography Summer 2006;

Primary Geography, Spring 2005;

Teaching Geography, Summer 2010

Challenging misinformation

In the last few years, the increasing use of social media has led to a ‘post-truth’ society where people are more likely to accept an argument based on emotions and beliefs that on facts. Post-truth is the antithesis of critical thinking. It is important for students to develop the skills to recognise and challenge misinformation.

  • See Media literacy and Values and controversial issues. Both of these pages explore ways to develop students’ critical thinking in geography.
  • Consider how developing students’ data skills in geography can support the acquisition of evidence-based knowledge. Refer to Numeracy and geography and read the article by Harris (2018).

A different aspect of misinformation results from the sloppy use of terminology that leads to inaccurate understanding. For example, the term natural disaster has become widely used in geography, yet ‘hazards may be natural: disasters are not’.

  • Read Puttick, S., Bosher, L. and Chmutina, K. (2018) ‘Disasters are not natural’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.

Reading

  • Booth, A. (2020) ‘Challenge moments’ in geography lessons: promoting critical thinking,’ Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Cannell, J., Hopkin, J. and Kitchen, B. (2018) Critical thinking in practice, Geographical Association.
  • Harris, R.. (2018) ’From data to knowledge: teaching data skills in geography, Geography, Spring.
  • Hopkin, J and Owens, P. (2016) ‘Critical thinking in geography’, Primary Geography, Autumn.
  • Hunt, P. (2018) ‘A critical pedagogy approach to the use of images in the geography classroom’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Leat, D. and McAleavy, T. (1998) ‘Critical thinking in the humanities’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Mawdsley, G. (2019) ‘Critical thinking for achievement CPD’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Roberts, M. (2015) ‘Critical thinking and global learning’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, p 121.
  • Sloggett, G. (2016) ‘The silent debate’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Willingham, D. (2020) How to teach critical thinkingImpact (Chartered College of Teaching), November.