The Importance of Critical Thinking for Student Achievement

Is critical thinking just another buzz phrase that really means very little? Is it yet another fad?

I first came across Critical Thinking as a teaching concept many years ago. Back then it was being being sold as a discrete qualification, but one which would help boost student performance across all other subjects as a sort of knock-on inevitable consequence. Then it became part of our PSHE core strands, but was still taught discretely.

A few years go by, and more and more we have started hearing about the ‘Knowledge Curriculum‘, and ‘Knowledge Schools’ (as if this is new and as if other curriculums haven’t ever been based on knowledge!) This has created something of a conflict among some, which gives rise to the Knowledge vs Skills debate. Critical thinking has been thrown into this melée.

However, is there a place for the skill of thinking critically in a knowledge-based curriculum? Do they have to be enemies or can they in fact complement each other and work together?

It becomes even more interesting when you consider the etymology of the word ‘critical’ as this is a multifaceted adjective. The dictionary breaks it down into four categories:

Clearly some of these definitions overlap. But what does this mean in the education world, in terms of critical thinking?

Being Critical vs Thinking Critically

There is a difference between being critical, and thinking critically.

If we are told we are being critical or receiving ‘constructive criticism’ we usually interpret this as a negative. Tell any teenager that you are going to be critical with their work, and you may well hear ‘please don’t, please be nice!’ and quite possibly receive a stroppy look!

Thinking, and speaking, critically does not have to mean something negative. It just has that connotation. As with creating an argument, something which is key to critical thinking, the gut interpretation by many to the word ‘argument’ is to think of a dispute and quite likely something impassioned, heated, angry and emotive. Yet creating an argument is an important skill, and something our students need to be equipped with – particularly in being able to argue without the aforementioned heat and emotion.

So, does critical thinking marry with a knowledge-based curriculum? Is it beneficial to student achievement and attainment? In short, yes.

From a geography perspective, critical thinking is part of the core concept of ‘thinking like a geographer’. To quote Mark Enser, “to think critically you need to know a lot, you cannot think critically without geographical knowledge’. I could argue that it is possible to be critical without knowledge (take any House of Commons political debate for example!), but that you cannot think critically without a knowledge base. The semantics is subtle, but important.

Is it needed?

So is there a need for critical thinking, given the reformed more rigorous examinations and onus on knowledge and recall? YES! You could have a vast knowledge base and be a poor thinker, be unable to grasp the importance of your knowledge, or be able to apply it to different situations. At that point, you may as well be a dusty old book sitting ignored on a shelf. It would not be a whole heap of help, if a nuclear power operator had encyclopaedic knowledge of elements, melting temperatures, half-lives, and computer programming – and yet could not critically weigh up the relative importance of allowing isotopes to reach thresholds before a meltdown occurred.

The criticism of some approaches to critical thinking (pun intended) has been when it has been taught in isolation, out of context. As with any of the unfashionable thinking skills or practical skills, making the specific teaching of those for skills’ sake is not the way. Just the same as spending a lesson teaching how to code Google Earth, or how to draw a historical timeline, or how to light a Bunsen burner, should not be the end but the means to an end. These skills are tools that help us, both teachers and students, to make sense of the knowledge we acquire and apply it to different situations. Knowledge acquisition without critical thinking or the skills to apply it, is like filling a hole-riddled bucket with water. The problem only arises when we divorce critical thinking from context and content.

Students will have been thinking critically in some sense for many years, albeit likely to be in raw unrefined form, so it is a case of developing these skills and honing them to apply balance, rumination, research, reflection. Where critical thinking differs from superficial thinking is that it requires more effort and concentration, because it is discursive, evaluative, comparative, judgemental, thoughtful, opinionated, complex, knowledgeable, complex and deep. We can think about something we know very little about, and we can also be critical about this in an uninformed way, but “our ability to think, critically or otherwise, can never exceed what we know” (David Didau).

How could critical thinking benefit achievement?

Often, one of the weakest areas in a teacher’s toolkit is their ability to form questions that prompt progress. Just the same, students’ abilities to form a range of deep questions (and then to answer these questions) is often flawed. It is difficult. It doesn’t flow naturally. Daily conversations do not tend to be probing. So, by taking an issue from your core curriculum (such as access to water resources, biological adaptation, the Norman Conquest, etc) and applying more critical questions (perhaps through prompts such as progressive question grids) this will encourage both teachers and students to think more deeply, therefore gaining more knowledge, and therefore being able to apply this knowledge and this questioning skill to another context. Without critical questioning, we can only gain surface knowledge.

History teachers have the upper hand (I don’t say this often!) when it comes to thinking critically about resources. But it is an essential skill, and one which is assessed also in geography, English, etc. So prompting students to consider bias, purpose, viewpoint, stakeholders, etc is a part of thinking critically across a range of subjects. We need to do all this whilst building core conceptual and contextual knowledge because “You can only think critically about what you know.” (Shaun Allison)

Higher tariff exam questions rely upon student ability to apply critical thinking. And, they need to have critical thinking skills under their belt ready to apply to any context – not just have a stock answer memorised or a structure template to follow, as the chances are this won’t be appropriate for the exam paper. Questions such as ‘to what extent’, ‘evaluate the effectiveness’, ‘consider the role’, ‘how successful’, etc. receive the highest marks in the exam, and are given this weighting for a reason – because these are hard! And knowledge alone won’t help here. It is essential to have good knowledge base obviously, otherwise you will have nothing to apply to the question, but ensuring students can think critically means they can approach any question with confidence. That they will not be thrown by the command words and the language of the paper, or by it not being about the topic they memorised. Interestingly, for one exam board in summer 2018 the average mark for a 9 mark question was a saddening Level 1, 2marks. Students were thrown by the language and couldn’t access it. And they couldn’t convert their knowledge to a new context. What a waste.

I also believe that enabling students to think critically from early years, even from primary right through secondary, will mean that we can reduce any reliance on scaffolds and structures that students can sometimes become overly reliant on. Whilst structures have a place, and can be beneficial to helping develop extended writing styles, if students are able to think critically as a natural part of their process then these scaffolds can be removed – which again also reduces any chance of students feeling overwhelmed or thrown by an exam paper. But more than that, being able to think critically, to question, to apply knowledge, means that students will be better prepared to be fully involved in the world outside the classroom, and beyond examinations. At the end of the day, the world is a complex place, and I’ve never come across a workplace that required you to just memorise fact – we’ve got Google for that ;-)

Suggested tools:

Here are a very few suggestions for tools that can be used to embed more critical thinking:

  • Progressive question grids (both for teachers to improve the quality of their questioning in class, and for students to use to structure their questioning ad answers)
  • Silent debate
  • Controversial issues circle of views, or controversial ‘windows, doors, mirrors’
  • Odd one out triangle
  • Development compass rose
  • Plus, minus, interesting
  • ‘So what?’ chains
  • Consequence chains
  • SOLO hexagons/connectagons/progression chains
  • Layers of inference
  • Flat chat
  • Question generators
  • Continuum barometer, etc.

I would never advocate teaching critical thinking skills, or any skills, as a discrete discipline in isolation. So, ensure you embed these skills within the curriculum you would normally teach, just the same as you would intrinsically develop extended writing skills, SPaG, IT skills, decision-making, source analysis, etc. . The purpose is not to learn a skill, but to develop the ability to acquire more and richer knowledge and to be able to apply this knowledge to new contexts. The purpose, is to empower young people, to enable them to achieve and be successful beyond the exam hall.

“The enemy of critical thinking is not being taught knowledge – as this is required to give you something to think critically about.” (Clare Sealy)

Jo Coles

Jo Coles is an Assistant Head Teacher currently on maternity career break, a geographer, RGS Fellow and Chartered Geographer, GA consultant, award winner, examiner and author.



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