Critical Thinking in Elementary Physical Education: Reflections on a Yearlong Study

By Cleland, Fran; Pearse, Cynthia | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, August 1995 | Go to article overview
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Critical Thinking in Elementary Physical Education: Reflections on a Yearlong Study


Cleland, Fran, Pearse, Cynthia, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Fifth grade students needed help in understanding how critical thinking roles could be used to respond to the movement tasks within specific lessons.

Imagine students, in small groups, analyzing a basketball play diagrammed on a poster, proceeding to execute the play, reversing the play, devising an alternative, reflecting on their performance, and judging their work using selected criteria. This is one scenario generated by our quest to ask many questions about critical thinking in physical education. For example, can young children learn to employ critical thinking strategies in physical education? What prerequisite skills do they need to have? Do they enjoy activities which emphasize critical thinking? What are the features of a physical education lesson that promote critical thinking?

To address these questions, we set out on a yearlong journey (20 weeks over a two-semester period) with 27 fifth grade students (ages 10 and 11). During this time, the driving force behind our excursion was one central question: How can the physical education specialist structure the learning environment to foster critical thinking? We hope to share answers to all of these questions, highlight successful critical thinking activities, and explain the process of teaching critical thinking in elementary physical education.

Justifying Critical Thinking in Physical Education

Why should we teach critical thinking in physical education? First, the current trend toward teaching critical thinking acknowledges that simply being human and naturally capable of thought does not mean one habitually thinks rationally, nor that good thinking skills are acquired by learning academic content (Nickerson, 1987). In fact, Paul (1987) contends that without training, humans use instinctual thought - spontaneous, egocentric thinking prone to irrational belief formations. Instinctual thought is self-serving and minimizes our capacity to empathize with or enter into points of view other than our own. Humans "need extensive practice to develop a dislike for inconsistency, a love of clarity, a passion to seek reasons and evidence and to be fair to points of view other than their own" (Paul, 1987, p. 130). Lipman (1988) suggests the importance of teaching critical thinking is in the promise of intellectual empowerment. He compares ordinary thinking (e.g., guessing, preferring, grouping, believing, noting relationships) with critical thinking (e.g., estimating, evaluating, classifying, assuming, grasping principles, noting relationships among other relationships, offering opinions with reasons, and making judgments based on criteria). Finally, dispositions, or habitual ways of behaving, such as trying to be well informed, being open-minded and willing to share ideas, and being sensitive to others' ideas, must be developed and support the critical thinking process (Beyer, 1987). These dispositions are constructive behavioral tendencies and vital outcomes of critical thinking. Students must be taught to use critical thinking and to develop the dispositions which support it.

Several scholars recognize that "in physical education, thinking, feeling, and moving are co-equal partners" (Buschner, 1990, p. 59). Practitioners and preservice teachers are encouraged to provide students with opportunities to achieve psychomotor, cognitive, and affective goals (Rink, 1993, p. 6). Therefore, we investigated ways to structure the physical education environment to facilitate good, that is, critical thinking. Consequently, we found that engaging students in critical thinking in physical education is a very demanding, multifaceted pedagogical task. It necessitates a great deal of planning, timing when to provide students with domain-specific knowledge, teaching students the critical thinking roles, and encouraging students to portray favorable dispositions. However, based on the positive reactions we received from our students during stimulated recall interviews (Calderhead, 1981), we believe critical thinking in physical education is a valid educational endeavor.

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