Critical Thinking: Creating Meaning in Physical Education (PE) by Denise Dewar and Sue Weir

Denise and Sue are seconded teaching fellows at the University of Edinburgh. While working in schools, they both encountered initiatives aimed at the development of thinking skills. These experiences evolved into a project about ‘critical thinking’ and exploring how these ways of working could be fostered in PE settings and beyond. This blog reports on key insights from their collective self-study that has tracked the impact of their efforts to introduce critical thinking to undergraduate PE students. As part of the PERF’s Practitioner Inquiry (PINQ) Project, their research has been guided by LaBoskey’s key elements for self-study (2004).

Critical Thinking: Creating Meaning in Physical Education (PE)

Critical thinking is an amorphous term (Tan, 2017). It has numerous interpretations on both its definition and on the processes involved in developing critical thinking.  Most definitions highlight the connections to the upper three levels of Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy: analysis, synthesis and evaluation. These forms of thinking skills have been associated with a number of ‘Critical thinking’ learner dispositions including; open and fair mindedness, flexibility of thought, inquisitiveness and willingness to take risks (Lai, 2011).

Within the PE literature, critical thinking is a term first popularised by McBride (1992). He viewed PE as an ideal setting to develop critical thinking, which he defined as:

Reflective thinking that is used to make reasonable and defensible decisions about movement tasks or challenges (p112)

The short term focus within this quotation can be seen in the way in which any critical thinking is applied to the immediate tasks and challenges within a class situation.  Our own efforts, however, have been geared towards viewing critical thinking from both a short and long term perspective.  As can be seen in the figure below (click on image to enlarge), pupils not only respond to unique movement problems and reflect on and justify the decisions they make in class, but are also encouraged to view PE critically as part of their overall physical activity habits and lifestyle.

One key driver for connecting with these longer term ambitions comes from Dewey’s (1933) work on ‘deep’ learning. He explores the connection between ‘thinking’ and ‘meaning’ to create what he termed ‘profound learning’.  More recent research with a focus on ‘meaning’ has identified personal experience as a central feature. In the PE context, Beni et al (2016) explain how pupils with personalised experiences can feel more ‘meaningful’ connections to learning tasks, which are more likely to commit to a physically active lifestyle.


Our knowledge of critical thinking initially developed through our reading and shared discussions with each other and with critical friends.  Knowledge and understanding was further developed by piloting with the undergraduate PE teachers through lectures, seminars and practical workshops.   Our lecture to second year students was included as a key part of the curriculum course and was followed by a seminar which allowed students to discuss their understanding of critical thinking and explore ideas for their teaching of core PE.  Within practical workshops, fourth year students reflected on their own wider experiences of dance and chose a ‘purpose’ best suited to them, the students created a group performance based on these personal experiences.   They then performed the dance, evaluated the performance collectively and then reflected on the thinking involved in the creative process.

Data were gathered through a mixed methods approach: pre and post workshop questionnaires with students together with our own individual and shared reflections with two experienced teacher educators acting as critical friends throughout the research process.  In both years of the project we were surprised by the decisions students made when presented with choices in the lesson.   This reinforced our belief in offering pupils opportunities to not only make decisions but also justify these decisions to gain more insight into them (McBride, 1992).   Also, in the second year of the project, we felt we were more explicit in teaching thinking skills and dispositions within the workshops and using the language of thinking from the literature.  The importance of reflection time was highlighted in collective reflections, as we felt students needed time to make sense of the task and the thinking process.

Student Experiences

From data collected following the second year of workshops all students were able to identify when they used thinking skills and dispositions within the session.  We felt this indicated a deeper understanding of the concepts and tied in with our own reflections of being better able to ‘model critical thinking’ (McBride, 1992, p 118).

In harmony with our reflections, students also highly valued pupil reflection as a key component of critical thinking, with over half (52%) indicating that this would be an area of their own practice they would like to enhance.

Most students (93%) thought the session was made ‘meaningful’ with most of them connecting this to being given choices throughout the session, being able to express themselves freely and the nature of the session being sociable and enjoyable.

Concluding thoughts

As an ongoing longitudinal study, we have had some valuable findings so far.  The responses from the students have been encouraging, particularly as all students recognise the importance of critical thinking within PE.   In addition, as we have grappled with the key critical thinking concepts, our shared reflections have helped us make more sense of the non-linear nature of the design and enactment process of this type of project.

In the future, we will continue to integrate key components of critical thinking in the gymnastics element of curriculum and pedagogy course for year 2 and will reflect individually and collectively on the enactment process.  In addition, we will continue to share our critical thinking journey with other practitioners as part of the PINQ project and more widely.


Beni, S, Fletcher T and Ni Chronin, D (2016) Meaningful Experiences in Physical Education and Youth Sport: A review of literature, Quest, DOI: 10.1080/00336297.2016.1224192

LaBoskey, V. K. (2004). The methodology of self-study and its theoretical underpinnings. In J. J. Loughran, M. L. Hamilton, V. K. LaBoskey & T. Russell (Eds.), International handbook of self-study of teaching and teacher education practices (Vol. 2, pp. 817-869). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Lai, E.R. (2011) Critical thinking: a literature review. Research report. Pearson.

McBride, R. 1992. Critical thinking—An overview with implications for physical education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 11: 112–125.

Tan, C (2017) Teaching Critical thinking: Cultural challenges and strategies in Singapore. British Educational research journal, 43:5 988-1002