Fostering Critical Thinking in Physical Education Students: Learning "Better Thinking" Skills Helps Students Develop into Autonomous Sportspersons

Article excerpt

Proficient movement in physical education involves sound decision-making skills such as critical thinking. For example, students learning volleyball face many decisions about rules, strategies, tactics, and skills. These decisions include transitioning to various offensive and defensive positions and postures depending on the location and flight of the ball and their opponents. Successful learners identify and understand problems, decide how to act on them, and then evaluate internal and external sources of feedback (e.g., teacher, peer comparisons). In comparison, less successful learners tend to be over-dependent on teachers for information, direction, and emotional support (King & Kitchener, 2002), in part because they view the teacher as the sole source of knowledge. Consequently, they often fail to persevere when working on tasks or inadequately use other sources of knowledge such as skilled peers or the literature (Cothran & Kulinna, 2006). This article summarizes the importance of critical thinking in physical education and provides suggestions for how such thinking in students can be improved by physical educators in regular class settings.

Critical Thinking and Its Importance

Critical thinking is essentially "better thinking." In a physical education context, it is defined by McBride (1991) as "reflective thinking that is used to make reasonable and defensible decisions about movement tasks and challenges" (p. 115). In other words, when students think critically they consider complex information from numerous sources and perspectives in order to make a reasonable judgment that they can explain and defend. Such thinking is represented internally through mental activities and externally in the form of actions and decision-making. It is evident, for example, in a player considering whether or not to shoot the ball in netball. The player must internally process information about the rules (e.g., "Am I in a legal position to shoot?"), tactics (e.g., "Am I strategically positioned to shoot?"), competing sources of information (e.g., "Should I pass it to Jane, who is open on the baseline?"), his or her skill (e.g., "Is the context appropriate for me to succeed?"), and emotions (e.g., "Am I confident I can make the shot?"). If the student decides to shoot, his or her critical-thinking capabilities will be reflected in whether or not the decision was wise and how well the shot was executed.

Since each of the national standards for physical education (National Association for Sport and Physical Education [NASPE], 2004) involves some level of thinking and decision-making, the need for critical thinking is evident. For example, NASPE (2004) reports the need for every child from kindergarten to grade 12 to benefit from physical education through improved judgment, that is, "Students learn to assume leadership, cooperate with others, and accept responsibility for their own behaviour" (p. 7).


Proficient critical thinking can be learned and is not dependent on high intellectual ability (Bruning, Schraw, & Ronning, 1995). It involves mentally considering the relevance of available information and the reliability of its sources, using that evidence to make a reasoned judgment, and then applying that to a physical action. Such thinking has been associated with academic qualities and skills such as decision-making, creativity, reasoning, problem-solving, debating, mindfulness, and reflective judgment (Woolfolk, Winne, & Perry, 2000). Of course, critical-thinking capability can also be beneficial in integrating content from disciplines other than physical education and for aspects of life beyond the educational setting. This is because better critical thinkers are assumed to make more informed and responsible decisions about, for example, healthy pursuits, since they more effectively identify problems, judge information, and draw prudent conclusions. …