Critical Thinking and Physical Education

By Tishman, Shari; Perkins, David N. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, August 1995 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking and Physical Education


Tishman, Shari, Perkins, David N., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Effective physical performance involves reasoning, reflecting, strategizing, and planning - all parts of the critical thinking process.

A friend of ours is an avid swimmer. The other day she returned from the pool in a particularly good mood. "What a great swim I had," she reported. "Everything clicked: My stroke was fluid, my breathing was rhythmic. The water felt like my natural element."

We asked what made today's swim different.

"I've been asking myself the same question," she said. "At first I thought it was what I ate for lunch. But I wasn't satisfied with that explanation, so I thought about it more and now I'm convinced that the most plausible explanation is that I walked to the pool today, instead of driving as I usually do. So my body was all warmed up by the time I started swimming."

Certainly this story is not an unusual one. Most of us have had the experience of reflecting on a distinctive physical performance and trying to explain its cause. When we do so, we are thinking critically. about the physical sphere of our lives. For example, our swimmer friend engaged in two important kinds of critical thinking: causal reasoning and metacognition (thinking about thinking). She engaged in causal reasoning by trying to explain the causes of her distinctively good swim. And, although she may be unaware of the technical word for it, she engaged in metacognition by criticizing her initial explanation (lunch) and pressing herself to reason more carefully. Most cognitive psychologists and educators who study thinking agree that these two areas of cognitive skill are part of the core of higher order thinking (Nickerson, Perkins, & Smith, 1985; Sternberg, 1985).

In recent years, scholars in physical education have begun to explore some fundamental connections between critical thinking and physical education, identifying the implications of critical thinking for physical education (McBride, 1991), and examining issues such as critical thinking in the psychomotor domain (Gabbard & McBride, 1990) and the teaching of critical thinking in the physical education context (Schwager & Labate, 1993). The aim of this article is to contribute to this emerging and exciting area of inquiry in three ways: by identifying areas of critical thinking that are particularly relevant to physical education; by showing how critical thinking is already present in many aspects of physical education; and by suggesting special opportunities in physical education to enhance students' critical thinking abilities.

First, we briefly discuss definitions of critical thinking and identify four broad areas of critical thinking performances that are especially relevant to physical education. Next, we explore how physical education can develop students' critical thinking by taking advantage of opportunities already present in instruction, and by making use of established critical thinking strategies and approaches. We conclude by underscoring the special opportunities that physical education offers for furthering the study and teaching of critical thinking.

Critical Thinking Defined

What is critical thinking? Definitions abound. Philosopher Robert Ennis defines critical thinking as thinking that deals effectively with matters of "what to believe or do" (Ennis, 1987). Psychologist Jon Baron defines critical thinking (although this is not the term he uses) as thinking that helps us achieve our goals (Baron, 1988). In the physical education context, researcher Ronald McBride proposes that critical thinking is reflective thinking used to make reasonable and defensible decisions about movement tasks or challenges. Following the spirit of these definitions, we suggest the following formulation: Critical thinking is a matter of directing our minds along paths more likely to yield sound products of thought - sound beliefs, decisions, solutions to problems, plans, policies, and so on.

Like most other definitions, our definition gives critical thinking a broad meaning that is relevant to everyday life and all levels of ability. …

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