Critical thinking in geography

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Critical thinking usually means better thinking. In the classroom it is closely linked with geographical enquiry and developing pupils’ ability to think like geographers; as it develops geographical understanding, critical thinking helps raise achievement.

Critical thinking can involve:

  • making better sense of information, knowledge and ideas, such as by examining evidence, considering alternative solutions and learning to distinguish fact from opinion. Critical thinking helps build geographical understanding and the ability to reach informed conclusions through practicing the three Rs: Rigor, Rationality and Reasoning.
  • becoming a more open thinker, such as by challenging assumptions through debate and considering the ethical issues underpinning geographical change. Critical thinking helps pupils become more autonomous learners, so helping to avoid telling pupils what to think or do.

Some include a third aspect in critical thinking:

  • becoming better at thinking, for example by reflecting not just on what has been learned, but also on how well: this is sometimes called metacognition, and is emphasised in Thinking Skills (see professional development links).

Critical thinking needs some care in curriculum planning and pedagogy. For example, when investigating fair trade or development in geography:

Globalisation and interdependence: fair trade

  • without critical thinking: lessons that focus on the merits of fair trade, leading pupils to the conclusion that buying fair trade goods is the right thing to do.
  • with critical thinking: lessons that investigate fair trade in the context of different kinds of trade, building understanding of the processes and connections involved so that pupils can examine each on merit, consider different views and perhaps decide whether to buy fair trade goods or not. Pupils might go further, for example comparing how evidence is presented by proponents of fair trade and free trade, considering the ethical issues involved in making such decisions or who has the power to influence them.

Development: classifying countries

  • without critical thinking: lessons that teach pupils a singular view of developing countries, such as that countries can be classified in certain ways, for example rich/poor, North/South, MEDC/LEDC, and that countries in each group have particular characteristics.
  • with critical thinking: lessons that investigate a range of evidence about development in different parts of the world, consider different ways to view and classify countries and debate the best way to do so. Planning takes into account the scale of study and how this can distort the way in which a place is perceived, for example, by making comparisons within as well as between countries: see Hans Rosling’s talk 'The Joy of Stats'. Pupils might go further, for example asking questions about how the evidence they examined was produced and selected, and by whom.

The GA considers that critical thinking is best applied to gain and deploy deeper geographical understanding, rather than practiced as a skill in its own right. Critical thinking is particularly valuable because of geography’s complexity and dynamism, and is relevant to pupils of all ages, supporting their current learning, future employment and lives as knowledgeable and active citizens.

Exemplification of critical thinking

As part of the GA/SSAT pilot of the Connecting Classrooms critical thinking and problem solving course, primary and secondary teachers have been developing exemplification of critical thinking in their classrooms.

Download:

Exemplification booklet for primary (PDF)

Exemplification booklet for secondary (PDF)

Support for critical thinking

Questions for critical thinking: you could use this question bank to improve pupils’ use of questions in geography investigations

Critical thinking and global learning: a key article from Margaret Roberts on critical thinking, critical pedagogy and how to apply them in the classroom

Argumentation map

Ofsted’s view of enquiry and critical thinking: the role of enquiry and critical thinking in promoting achievement in geography.

Professional development: articles and books

From the GA journals

Hot Shot GIS: developing higher order thinking with GIS from Primary Geographer

Critical thinking in the context of global learning from Primary Geographer

Mind friendly learning in geography: learning and applying a range of thinking skills from Teaching Geography

Developing holistic thinking: mind-mapping from Teaching Geography

Are year 13s too old to think? a problem-solving approach from Teaching Geography

The silent debate: a strategy for critical thinking about complex issues from Teaching Geography

From the GA website

GA Manifesto

Thinking geographically

GTIP Think Piece - Values and Controversial Issues

GTIP Think Piece - Global Warming: teaching global warming as a controversial issue

Pedagogy and thinking: part of an online CPD unit on migration

From the GA shop

Geography through enquiry: Margaret Roberts’ seminal book includes extensive support for critical thinking in overview and in practice

Theory into practice: Mysteries Make You Think: the use of Mysteries in the geography classroom and how they can help develop students' thinking skills.

Theory into Practice: Moral Dilemmas: how to help pupils explore the moral dimensions in geographical issues

Other links

National Geographical Decision-making collection

Owens, P. (2012) ‘Geography and Sustainability’ in Teaching Geography Creatively, edited by S. Scoffham, pp. 154–167. London: Routledge.

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