Critical reflection


About this inquiry tool

“Reflection is thinking to learn! It is a ‘meaning-making process’ that helps us use what we have learned to set goals. It is the link between thinking and doing.”

(University of Waterloo)

Being uncertain drives us to reflect, to seek knowledge. Critical reflection helps students assess what they know, what they need or want to know, and how they can bridge that gap. Reflections provide opportunities for students to self-assess and document their learning progress as their perspectives evolve.

Critical reflection is most important in complex problem-solving situations. It provides an opportunity to step back and think about how we solve problems, and how find ways to diversify and apply problem-solving strategies. This puts the student in the driver’s seat and promotes lifelong learning.

Providing a safe space for exploration empowers students to take risks with their learning. This lesson provides an example of how help students gain awareness of strategies for critical reflection.

When to use this lesson

We recommend completing this lesson after the Put the “Quest” in Questions Lesson. The questions that students generate in that lesson can form that basis for inquiry, and also provide content for the Critical Reflection lesson.

We also recommend using this lesson before introducing the Take Action project for a module, to support students’ self-reflection.

Lesson Objectives

By the end of the lesson, students will:

  • Explain the 3 steps of critical reflection

  • Develop the tools and vocabulary to reflect critically

  • Apply the critical reflection steps to a new situation


90 minutes


  • Graphic Organizer - the student receives the graphic organizer after watching the above video “Critical Reflection.”

  • Digital devices with internet access for research and to fill out graphic organizer (at least 1 per group)

Part 1 - The detective game

30 min

The first part of this lesson is a well-known activity that you may have played before. It's a fun and engaging way to introduce the concept of critical reflection!

The premise of the game is that the detective must figure out the rules of a secret society (the rest of the group). The detective asks their classmates questions, and wins when they correctly identify the rule.

How to play:

  1. Invite the class to sit in a circle.

  2. Choose one student to be the detective and ask them to leave the room while the rest of the class decides on the secret rule

  3. While the detective is out of earshot, the class must decide what the secret rule will be. Some possible ideas are:

    • Everyone believes they are a famous celebrity.

    • Anyone wearing green lies each time they are asked a question.

    • Everyone believes they are the person sitting across from them.

    • Anyone asked a question that starts with “what” must scratch their head.

  4. Have fun thinking up rules with your students! There are no wrong ideas. Once the group has decided on their illness, escort the detective back into the room to stand in the middle of the circle.

  5. The detective must now try to uncover the secret rule by asking questions. Some suggested questions are:

    • What colour is your hair?

    • Where do you live?

    • What did you do yesterday?

    • Do you wear glasses?

    • Are you wearing socks?

Asking a question to multiple people in the group can sometimes help the detective figure out a complex rule.

Play a couple rounds with the students.

What, So what, Now what

Once the class has played a couple of rounds, discuss the game with the whole group. The discussion guide below is intended to draw out the three steps of critical reflection.


Begin the discussion by asking the class about the facts of the game. For example:

    • What was the detective trying to figure out?

    • What types of information did they ask about?

    • Why did they ask those questions? How were they helpful?

    • Besides asking questions, how else did the detective obtain information about the rules of society?


Once the class has identified the facts of the game, ask them questions to help them make sense of the facts. For example:

    • Could the detective always trust what a person says? How did they know when a person was a lying?

    • What did it mean if a person lied to the detective?

    • How can a lie be helpful in this case?

    • How was the detective able to obtain information if the answer was a lie?

    • Did the detective ask any unhelpful questions? How so?

    • Detectives, as you started to pinpoint a rule, did you learn any information that contradicted your initial hunch about the problem? How could contradictory information be useful?


Once the class has made sense of the facts, ask your students questions to turn this knowledge into action. For example:

    • How would will you play the game next time?

    • What are some strategies a player could use to their advantage?

Part 2 - Practice it!

60 min

1. Explain to the class that the discussion they just had after the game is an example of critical reflection. Tell them, “We are now, as a class, going to watch a video that further explains this concept.“

2. Play the video: “Critical Reflection" above.

3. After the video, ask them:

    • What did you learn about critical reflection from the video?

    • What questions do you still have about critical reflection?

    • What did you learn about plastics in the ocean from the video?

    • What questions do you still have about plastic in the ocean?

4. To practice what they learned from the video, connect the topic of plastics in the ocean with plastics in their school. Say, “Let's take the topic of plastics in the ocean a step further to look at our school’s waste management system. We will use the “What? So what? Now what?” method.”

WHAT? - What are the basic facts?

    • What facts do you know about our school’s recycling program or waste management culture?

    • How much is recycled in the school?

    • What ends up in the garbage?

    • What is the waste culture in our school?

    • How can you learn more information about it?

SO WHAT? - Let's make sense of the facts.

    • What do these facts suggest?

    • What does this say about our waste culture in our school?

    • What are the problems that need solutions?

NOW WHAT? - Let’s turn this knowledge into action.

    • What kind of solutions can we propose for the problems we found?

    • Who is impacted by these facts, how do we make it relevant for them?

    • What’s our next step to make a change today?

5. In the remaining class time, invite the students get into their crews to fill out the Graphic Organizer on a tablet or computer. Allow the students time to think, discuss, and debate. Avoid directly providing answers.

6. To remind them of the types of information to include in each section you can show the graphic organizer (next page) on the board. Suggest they can use the information discussed with the whole group, but encourage them to come up with a few more ideas for each section

If you wish to extend this critical reflection, consider using the Take Action project to dive into a deeper investigation and set of actions with your class.


Just before the end of the class, have each crew share one action they came up with to improve the school’s waste management culture immediately.

Preview the critical reflection graphic organizer

Graphic Organizer - Critical Reflection - Filled in version

For more information, go to the Inquiry tools guide.