Analysing Critically

What? One of the eight Knowledge Processes of Learning by Design. Analysing Critically involves students questioning and exploring the significances, consequences and implications of the concepts and theories with which they are working. It encourages students to think through the impacts and outcomes of phenomena on different people and groups of people including themselves –sometimes this can be as simple as the teacher prompting her students to consider ‘Who are the winners and losers here?’. Students could be asked to consider impacts in terms of different factors – environmental, economic, social, political or personal (the student and their friends and family) – or encouraged to think about them in terms of their short- or long-term consequences. Analysing critically provides opportunities for students to actively think about and discuss what they are learning with each other and the teacher.

Why? Critical analytical skills are considered essential in academic and managerial settings. Such skills take students into deeper intellectual territory and provide a basis for reasoned argument, discussion and discernment between competing ideas. A capacity to critically analyse phenomena is at the heart of most academic, managerial, political and philosophical endeavours. At the level of the everyday an ability to critically analyse impacts on one’s capacity to negotiate and be assertive and reduces the likelihood of being tricked or hoodwinked. At the personal level being able to critically analyse allows one to think through the consequences and impacts of one’s own behaviours on others. More broadly being able to critically analyse is a fundamental skill necessary for meaningful participation in society – it is at the heart of personal agency, complex understanding, reasoned discussion and informed decision-making.

How? Analysing critically is about the search for meaning, exploring consequences and deepening students’ thinking and engagement. It is also linked to developing critical literacy. Critical literacy involves analysing and evaluating ideas and texts beyond the literal level. It involves examining multiple viewpoints, including perspectives not presented in a text, and it promotes reflection, transformation and action. This can be achieved via the teacher crafting sharp questions for the students to consider, reflect on and respond to: these questions need to be critically- and analytically-focused.

Some teacher designs – Learning Elements – are crafted with a strong focus on Analysing critically, because of the capacity of this Knowledge Process to prompt students to think more deeply. This is reflected in the title of Rita van Haren’s Learning Element Problematising zoos through Zoo by Anthony Browne. Van Haren’s design, although employing all eight Knowledge Processes, creates the conditions in which every student can critically analyse zoos and explore the consequences: for the animals which are contained within them and for the people who visit them. By the time learners reach the point in the design where van Haren prompts them to Analyse critically ‘How does it affect us?’ the class have already: explored students’ experiences of zoos (Experiencing the known); read and discussed Anthony Browne’s Zoo (Experiencing the new); looked for positive and negative words and images in the story (Conceptualising by naming); explored whether the words matched the images: (Analysing functionally); used sticky notes to re-write Browne’s text (Conceptualising with theory); created a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the original with the new (Conceptualising with theory); worked in groups to present a Readers Theatre (Applying appropriately); used a Retrieval Chart to identify the visual elements in Browne’s images (Conceptualising by naming); providing students with a metalanguage to discuss the use of visual modes to tell stories and evoke meaning and deliberate responses in readers; and employed a second Retrieval Chart to explore the functions of these different visual modes (Analysing functionally).

It is only once this scaffold has been created, through her design, that van Haren shifts to Analysing critically. She prompts the students to consider a series of questions under the banner How does it affect us?: What do you think about the animals in Zoo? What do you think about the humans in Zoo? Are they happy or sad? Why? Why not? Why has the author made these choices to present the people and animals in this way? How does Browne include humour?

These are analytical questions which have a sharp edge; they lead students to think about the substantive issues that Browne canvasses in his text; they prompt students to form considered opinions; to think about the consequences of zoos from multiple perspectives; and to consider the role played by humour in the text. Van Haren continues the theme of Analysing critically by prompting students, working in small groups, to create a T-Chart to record the positive and negative messages/ideas/themes about zoos which are presented in Browne’s book.

These Analysing critically activities represent the mid-point in van Haren’s design, she follows up with further Experiencing, Conceptualising and Analysing activities culminating in a series of tasks that call on the students to apply what they have learned both appropriately and creatively. The final task is a Great DebateZoos should be banned! – an Applying creatively activity in which students are paired ‘each speaker presents three points and then the second speaker refutes these and presents three points. The first person then has a short right of reply to refute the points of the second speaker’. This creates the conditions in which every student can demonstrate their understanding of the issues and make use of their Conceptualising, Analysing and Creative skills drawing on their work throughout the Learning Element.

In summary, the Knowledge Process Analysing critically is deployed in van Haren’s Learning Element following a series of thoughtful and deliberate activities which activate and draw upon many of the other Knowledge Processes, scaffolding and supporting students as they work towards more sophisticated learning. Analysing critically is mobilised via the sharp questions van Haren asks and via her use of a T-Chart, setting up the conditions in which students think deeply about the topic while creating the wherewithal to later apply what they have learned.

Sharp questions prompt students to consider the significance of something, its consequences and implications: for me, you, them, us; now, tomorrow, next week, next year; who is harmed or benefits and how; what if… it didn’t exist, grew bigger or smaller, improved or got worse?

How these tools are used is also important – students working individually, in pairs or small groups – will affect their use and impact. Students could be seated four to a round-table at six separate tables but if their responses are taken individually, directed at the teacher, the analytical work that goes on will have a different character and content than if the students worked collaboratively in their small groups on collective responses, with members free to roam and consult with students at other tables. The teacher must decide: What kind of analytical work do I want from my students? What are my other teaching goals? How do I want my students to work?

More information about the use of T-Charts and other analytical tools can be found here:

See the Lanyon Tool-kit for additional tools, tactics and references for Analysing critically.

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