Why critical inquiry can be a game-changer for health and physical education teachers

Why critical inquiry can be a game-changer for health and physical education teachers

Critical inquiry is one of five key ideas in the national curriculum. But what does it mean, and how can it be used to encourage students to think more deeply about their world?

In the first of a five-part video series on the five propositions of the Australian HPE curriculum, Monash researchers Karen Lambert and Justen O’Connor explore different ways to look at critical inquiry, and offer some practical classroom advice for educators.

In this video

What is critical inquiry?

Justen: It’s an approach that explores the personal, social and environmental factors that impact our society. I like to attach a socio-critical approach to critical inquiry that challenges the taken-for-granted assumptions that sit under the surface in Health and Physical Education.

Karen: It’s a way to think about the world and to question it in different ways. It’s a pedagogical practice and also as a lens. I think this provides us with an opportunity to encourage young people to think about their world and to delve deeper into the things that make it tick, and can make it quite confusing. It's an approach that encourages us to question our assumptions.

Why is critical inquiry important?

Karen: Social justice is at the heart critical inquiry, something important to bring to your health and movement classes.

When young people understand what it’s like to exist in the world, outside their bodies and question ideas that position people in different ways, it goes a long way in developing social consciousness. In turn, this means they can go out and solve the more complex problems they will face in the future.

Justen: Students get to tackle everyday issues that are relevant and meaningful to them. This includes exploring issues within the school ground. They can ask: what access do students have to movement? What are the things that are stopping access to movement at their school?

Students go out and explore, collect data, ask questions and challenge. They come back and provide alternative explanations about what access to movement means in their everyday lives, in their own school community and beyond. As teachers, we can scaffold these kinds of things, and build a critical inquiry approach in our everyday practice.

Karen: Critical inquiry is about advocacy because we can move beyond simple research or finding out answers to difficult questions. There are complex questions about how we operate in the world and how the world operates upon us. There’s an advocacy role for young people to play.

As teachers, it encourages us to question what we do within our curriculum. It pushes us to create opportunities for young people to push against the boundaries of what they actually know. If we can bring that to our classrooms, then our students will go far beyond a questioning approach and really think about the kind of world they want to live in and the kind of world they’d like to construct.

An example of what it might look like in a classroom

Karen: An example for critical inquiry is via a media text analysis. The stimulus in this case is the success – or otherwise – of AFL for women in Victoria.

The media played a role in the success of this competition and the players who emerged from it. Students take some media texts from a variety of different sources and then apply a lens to that to be able to unpack what the main messages are.

female playing Australian football
The media played a role in the success of this competition and the players who emerged from it (Photo: Tigerman2612*)

As a teacher, I scaffold the questions from easier to harder, so that students get below the suface, into the deeper meanings and messages of the stories.

  • Who were those meanings and messages for?
  • What would the impact be on themselves, as readers? The community? The players?
  • What are the messages for clubs, teams and for other sports administrators?

I like young people to start to think about how to apply their new understandings from this one example around sport, gender and the media to another example in sport. They can relate it to their school, or their own involvement in school sport. This way they start to understand that behind everything written in the media is a dominant message they can ask critical questions about.

Developing skills for critically inquiring

Justen: We can use critical inquiry for a range of things in our teaching.

Many teachers may think of critical inquiry as part of a big project or a large unit of work. I think before we embark on any significant large chunks of work using critical inquiry, we need to foreground the key skills and knowledge that enable the learners to be able to utilize a critical inquiry approach.

They way to do this is with scaffolded examples, built over time, which lead into a larger focus project.

Key skills for a critical inquiry approach

  • Explore meaningful topics or issues
  • Ask questions that encourage understandings
  • Locate and use quality sources of information including real life data
  • Challenge taken for granted assumptions
  • Develop understandings with supporting evidence
  • Present findings in meaningful ways that add depth to the topic

Over time, and as these skills are progressively built, students can engage in larger projects around critical inquiry.


Developed by Monash University and published in collaboration with ACHPER, Health and Physical Education: The Five Propositions is a set of five cards that can be used by teachers, educators and university students as a tool to help support their emerging understandings of the five propositions of the new Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education.

These cards are available through the ACHPER website.

Next up

Part two of this series focuses on why PE teachers should flip their thinking when adopting a strengths-based approach.

*Photo of Tayla Harris By Tigerman2612 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.