Teaching for Critical Thinking in Physical Education

By Schwager, Susan; Labate, Cathy | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Teaching for Critical Thinking in Physical Education


Schwager, Susan, Labate, Cathy, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Focusing on critical thinking and encouraging students to use cognitive skills can result in improved skills and fitness, in addition to greater knowledge.

Critical thinking and the teaching of higher order thinking skills is currently receiving much attention in education. Several physical educators (Bain, 1988; McBride, Gabbard, & Miller, 1990; McBride, 1992) have presented models for teaching critical thinking in physical education, but, with the exception of Gabbard and McBride (1990), have not offered practical suggestions on how a teacher interested in teaching cognitive skills could do so in the context of his or her physical education classes.

In this article, we define critical thinking and provide readers with a practical approach to applying critical thinking to teaching physical education. Specific examples of the kinds of questions and challenges that would be appropriate for a critical thinking lesson in physical education are given.

The current emphasis on critical thinking in the education literature includes a lively debate regarding the nature of thinking skills and how critical thinking should appear in the curriculum. Are thinking skills generic or context-bound? Should teaching thinking skills or teaching subject matter take precedence? (See, for example, Ennis, 1989; Perkins & Salomon, 1989; Prawat, 1991.) Critical thinking is regarded here as a useful tool that can help physical education teachers achieve their goals. Furthermore, the use of higher order thinking skills can be applied throughout the curriculum, grades K-12, as well as within a variety of curricular models (e.g., movement education, sports and games, fitness, outdoor education).

Definitions of Critical Thinking

The term "critical thinking" has been defined many ways. Ennis (1985) defines it as "deciding what to believe or do." According to Sternberg (1985), critical thinking refers to the mental processes, strategies, and representations one uses to solve problems. Lipman (1988) describes critical thinking as skillful, responsible thinking that is sensitive to context, reliant on criteria, and self-correcting.

Since critical thinking includes so many different kinds of thinking skills, one way to define critical thinking is to describe what it is not. Critical thinking is not rote memory or blind acceptance. Virtually all other thinking processes can be described as possessing some quality of critical thinking. It may also be useful to describe critical thinking as a variety of thinking skills that can be placed in a hierarchy of sorts. For example, thinking skills such as "name," "describe," or "select" represent the lowest level, while thinking skills such as "compare/contrast" and "sequence" represent the middle level. Cognitive skills such as "hypothesize" and "evaluate" typify the highest level (see table 1). Critical thinking can be regarded as simply an array of thinking processes or skills used to help make everyday decisions. For example, when you ask yourself the question, "Which route should I take to work to avoid the most traffic?" you are comparing alternatives. When you ask yourself, "What should I have for lunch?" you may be analyzing the content of the food choices, comparing possibilities, and evaluating the relative nutritional benefit of your choices.

Students may also be using many of these critical thinking skills to perform tasks and complete assignments in physical education classes. For example, in a basketball game, a student may ask, "How do I get the basketball down court while being closely guarded?" In this instance, the student is analyzing the situation on the court, selecting a possible course of action, predicting which movements will result in success, and then evaluating the outcome of the choice made. The advantage of focusing on critical thinking in teaching physical education is that it can heighten students' awareness of their own thinking and the degree to which their thinking skills can be effective in helping them become more skillful, fit, and knowledgeable about physical activity. …

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