Critical thinking and source criticism – civic education | Skolforskningsinstitutet

Critical thinking and source criticism – civic education

An important task for teachers of civic education is to strengthen pupil´s critical thinking and source criticism. To achieve this, teachers need access to research on how teaching in this area is best designed in practice. In line with the introduction of digital media in schools, there is also a need for knowledge about how teaching can be designed to strengthen pupils’ source criticism in encounters with various types of digital information.

A systematic review compiles research of the highest relevance and quality, to answer a specific question at a particular point in time. The question that we answer in this review is:

How can teaching be designed to strengthen pupils’ critical thinking and source criticism in civic education?

In the review, we define critical thinking in civic education as the ability to interpret, review and evaluate different types of information about social issues in order to be able to analytically distinguish and understand different perspectives, consequences and relationships. Critical thinking further entails the ability to distinguish, develop and question one’s own, as well as others’, assessments and conclusions, and to be able to use and explain information, analyses and arguments in reasoning about social issues. Using this definition, source criticism is an important part of critical thinking in civic education.


The results of the review describe how the teaching design affects pupils’ learning and chances of developing different abilities.

Bild på omslagetTeaching design

The studies included in the review show that there are different ways of designing teaching in civic education, with the aim of strengthening pupils’ critical thinking. The review focuses on three types of teaching:

  • discussion-based teaching
  • text-based teaching
  • multimedia-based teaching.

In discussion-based teaching, teachers and pupils interact in verbal discussion. In text-based teaching, the emphasis is on pupils working with texts, for example reading and writing texts or commenting on each other’s texts. In multimedia-based teaching, pupils work with various types of audiovisual information or with digital tools.

Pupils’ learning

In order to learn to think critically in civic education, pupils need to acquire subject knowledge and develop a number of abilities in relation to this knowledge. The studies included in the review examine how the teaching design can affect pupils’ learning and chances to develop the abilities that are part of critical thinking.

Source-critical skill

Source-critical skill in civic education means being able to interpret, review and evaluate different types of information about social issues. A clear focus on pupils’ learning of source-critical skills can be found in the studies on multimedia-based teaching. The research illustrates the importance of providing pupils with various types of support. This may include strategies for reviewing information on the internet, such as using several independent sources. Teachers can also create opportunities for pupils to meet and collaborate on digital information. Using videos and other audiovisual information in teaching can give pupils the opportunity to get a multifaceted view of a social issue, but they need support to be able to interpret, review and evaluate the material. Using different types of information from the local community can create a closeness to the source.

In text-based instruction, teachers have good opportunities to steer pupils’ work towards focusing on assessing the credibility and reliability of source material. Teachers can, among other things, focus on assessing original sources or letting pupils practice building their own texts. Discussion-based teaching is used in terms of source criticism to encourage pupils to interpret and assess the credibility of claims on social issues.

Analytical skill

Analytical skill in civic education means being able to discern and understand different perspectives, consequences and relationships on social issues. When pupils experience a genuine need to reason critically, and also feel confident, there are good opportunities for them to develop their analytical skill through discussion. Some studies show that it can be beneficial to combine analytical exercises with creative and practical exercises.

Pupils working on texts may need the support of the teacher in the initial stage to learn how experts in an area analyse a text and its parts. Visually structuring the arguments in a text can be such a support. Studies on teaching with multimedia highlight the importance of the teacher introducing subject-specific ways of working with information to distinguish and understand different perspectives, consequences and relationships. Support for identifying or comparing perspectives can be built into digital learning resources but should also be provided by teachers in the form of guidance and questions to the pupils.

Self-reflective skill

Self-reflective skill in civic education means being able to distinguish, develop and question assessments and conclusions on social issues. Several studies describe how pupils’ skill for self-reflection can improve by discussion-based teaching. Pupils can take inspiration from teachers’ way of asking questions so that they also challenge each other’s way of thinking in discussions. If pupils discuss in smaller groups or in pairs, they can reflect on their own claims in dialogue with a classmate. Questions that encourage pupils to use their own reasoning on other examples enable them to revise their conclusions.

Text-based instruction allows pupils to reflect on their own assessments of text content. When teachers ask pupils to discern and explain the perspectives in a text, they are challenged to reflect on what they  think about different perspectives. By using examples that pupils can relate to in the local community, they are also encouraged to reflect on their own role in relation to these examples. Allowing pupils to produce, and reflect on, their own texts can also strengthen critical self-awareness.

Argumentation skill

Argumentation skill in civic education means being able to use and explain information, analyses and arguments in reasoning about social issues. Several studies describe the value of discussion-based teaching to strengthen pupils’ abiltiy to argue. When pupils have the opportunity to discuss, in class, in smaller groups or in pairs, they can develop their skill to use analyses, arguments and reasoning in interaction with each other. Discussions in smaller groups or pairs can be beneficial for creating a senseof security and confidence in argumentation.

It is important for the teacher to find a good balance between leading the discussions and giving pupils more freedom, as well as helping them structuring their arguments. Another important role for the teacher is to frame the discussions, direct pupils towards the subject content and highlight particularly important aspects. When teachers ask challenging questions pupils can develop the way they form arguments. Working with texts in a subject area is valuable for developing subject-specific knowledge and argumentation skills in a specific area. Pupils can also practise their ability to argue by posting in digital fora, as long as they receive feedback on their posts.

Important aspects in teaching

The research included in this review describes some aspects of teaching that are important for pupils’ learning of critical thinking in civic education:

  • teacher leadership
  • well-chosen content
  • scaffolding.

Several studies highlight the importance of teachers leading and designing teaching. This means, for example, that the teacher actively directs conversations to stimulate reflection, questioning and consideration of perspectives that pupils are not familiar with, or advance on their own. The instruction can include active participation where pupils work independently or in groups, but this should be from assigned perspectives or in a framework of established working methods.

An important aspect of a teacher’s leadership is to select and work with well-chosen content. Current or local issues is highlighted in several studies as something that can be used in teaching to help pupils identify problems, discern perspectives, evaluate information, and see different possible solutions. Controversial issues and social conflicts with different and contrasting perspectives can stimulate learning. Through their choice of content, teachers can stimulate pupils to a subject-specific and subject-disciplinary approach. Within this framework, there can be independent pupil activity.

A key aspect that recurs in several studies is how important it is for teachers to use scaffolding to strengthen pupils’ critical thinking. Scaffolding can consist of clear instructions on how pupils are to work or models for how to present their work, but it can also consist of guidance from the teacher in specific situations, such as support in the form of appropriate and thoughtful questions. Scaffolding is used to support pupils in their assessments and conclusions, but they can be gradually removed.

The selection of research

This systematic review is based on the results of 30 studies from nine countries. The review includes studies on teaching from primary to adult education, with an even distribution between primary/secondary and upper secondary education.

The review includes studies that use different research methods to describe how teaching can be designed and explain how teaching affects pupils’ learning.

Project group

The project is carried out by a project team consisting of external researchers (specialists in the field) and employees at the Swedish Institute for Educational Research.

External researchers

  • Cecilia Arensmeier, Senior lecturer, Örebro University
  • Thomas Nygren, Senior lecturer, Uppsala University

From the institute

  • Pontus Wallin, PhD, Researcher/Project manager
  • Ilana Manneh, PhD, Assistant project manager (2020)
  • Linda Ekström, PhD, Assistant project manager (2019)
  • Lisa Jonsson, Information specialist (2020)
  • Aiko Nakano Hylander, PhD, Information specialist (2019-2020)
  • Catarina Melin, Project assistant (2020)
  • Maria Bergman, Project assistant (2019)

The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).

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