Critical Thinking Ideas For The Classroom

There are few buzzwords in K-12 right now as big as "rigor." The Common Core has been hailed by advocates as a more rigorous set of standards, but a big question that keeps popping up is how to measure that rigor. A good place to start is with evidence, which is what many of the new tests plan on incorporating into their structure. 

Using evidence — the ability to support and explain your point — is not only a good way to measure rigor, but an important skill for students to learn. It gives insight into a person's train of thought and how they came to their conclusion, additionally opening opportunities for more innovative, but also structured, thinking patterns.  

Placing emphasis on how a student backs up what they believe, and not "the answer," takes pressure off of a student to get the "right" answer — or what they think the teacher wants to hear. This, in turn, encourages students to be creative with their thinking. Through emphasis on evidence, teachers can facilitate an environment where deep, critical thinking and meta cognition are the norm. 

Below are some activities to help teachers incorporate curiosity, evidence, and critical thinking into their classrooms.  

1. Gap Fill In

Students are shown a picture, projected in the front of the room, if possible. At the top of their paper, students should write: "What is happening in this picture?" At the bottom of the page, they should answer (very simply, in 1-2 sentences) with what they believe is happening in the photo.

In the middle of the page — and this is why it's called "Gap Fill In" — students write down all of the steps they took to arrive at that answer. Students are encouraged to write down the evidence they see that supports their conclusion.  

GOAL: This activity not only uses evidence, but supports meta cognition skills by asking what prior knowledge brought you to your conclusion. This is a good activity to Bell Work or "Do Now."

Example Gap Fill In image (images should be modified to match grade level)

2. Fishbowl 

Set up an inner circle (or fishbowl) and an outer circle in your classroom. Students should not be sitting in this setup yet, but rather in their regular classroom seats. The class should be presented with a question or a statement and allowed to reflect individually for a few minutes.

During this reflection period, count the class off into small groups by 3s, 4s, or 5s.

Students should now transition to the fishbowl setup. In the numbered groups, have students facilitate a conversation while others on the outside observe without comment. (For example, a teacher may have all 1s go to the fishbowl, while the rest of the class sits in the outer ring.)  

Once the inner group has discussed for a bit, have the outer group evaluate two things: Their process (Did they listen to one another?) and their content (Did they provide evidence or just opinions?).

GOAL: This activity helps students understand how and if they use evidence, as well as hear the difference between giving an opinion and backing an opinion with evidence.  

Debate

Introduce a statement written in a clearly visible location. (Example: "Prisons are effective in stopping crime.") In each corner of the classroom, positions (Strongly Agree, Strongly Disagree, Somewhat Agree, Somewhat Disagree) should be posted and students should be asked to move to whichever best represents how they feel about the statement.  

Without help from the teacher, students should move into a self-facilitated discussion where everyone is to discuss why they have selected their position. During this time, the teacher should transcribe the speech of the participants. If possible, this should be done in real-time with the transcription projected onto the board during the debate.

After a decided amount of time (5-7 minutes), the debate will be concluded and students will return to their seats for debrief, during which the class should evaluate the debate using the transcription as evidence.

Ask the class: Was the debate good or bad? Use evidence from the transcription to support your analysis.  

After the first classroom debate, the teacher should present the rules for the debate. It is recommended that the teacher conduct the first debate without rules, so students can have a comparison for what works and what doesn't work.

Rules for debate:

A. SEEK first to understand the statement, EVERY WORD.

B. PROJECT your voice; don’t yell.

C. Your PERSONAL experience is NOT the rule. Connect it to bigger example.

D. RESTATE the previous point made, make your point, and move on.

E. General examples, ok to start; SPECIFIC EVIDENCE, this kid’s SMART!

GOAL: This activity allows students to not only debate a point, but, like the fishbowl, analyze their communication skills. Additionally, by keeping the transcription log, students can actually see how they progress throughout the year.  

These activities can and should be morphed to match the culture and needs of the individual classroom.  This specific list comes from activities used in the Allied Media: Detroit Future Schools curriculum.  

10 Team-Building Games That Promote Critical Thinking

by TeachThought Staff

One of education’s primary goals is to groom the next generation of little humans to succeed in the “real world.”

Yes, there are mounds of curricula they must master in a wide breadth of subjects, but education does not begin and end with a textbook or test.

Other skills must be honed, too, not the least of which is how to get along with their peers and work well with others. This is not something that can be cultivated through rote memorization or with strategically placed posters.

Students must be engaged and cooperation must be practiced, and often. The following team-building games can promote cooperation and communication, help establish a positive classroom environment and — most importantly — provide a fun, much-needed reprieve from routine.

10 Team-Building Games That Promote Collaborative Critical Thinking

You can purchase a classroom-ready version of team-building games that promote critical thinking here.

1. If You Build it…

This team-building game is flexible. Simply divide students into teams and give them equal amounts of a certain material, like pipe cleaners, blocks, or even dried spaghetti and marshmallows.

Then, give them something to construct. The challenge can be variable (think: Which team can build the tallest, structurally-sound castle? Which team can build a castle the fastest?).

You can recycle this activity throughout the year by adapting the challenge or materials to specific content areas.

Skills: Communication; problem-solving

2. Save the Egg

This activity can get messy and may be suitable for older children who can follow safety guidelines when working with raw eggs. Teams must work together to find a way to “save” the egg (Humpty Dumpty for elementary school students?) — in this case an egg dropped from a specific height. That could involve finding the perfect soft landing, or creating a device that guides the egg safely to the ground. Let their creativity work here.

Skills: Problem-solving, creative collaboration

3. Zoom

Zoom is a classic classroom cooperative game that never seems to go out of style. Simply form students into a circle and give each a unique picture of an object, animal or whatever else suits your fancy. You begin a story that incorporates whatever happens to be on your assigned photo. The next student continues the story, incorporating their photo, and so on.

Skills: Communication; creative collaboration

4. Minefield

Another classic team-building game. Arrange some sort of obstacle course and divide students into teams. Students take turns navigating the “mine field” while blindfolded, with only their teammates to guide them. You can also require students to only use certain words or clues to make it challenging or content-area specific.

Skills: Communication; trust

See also: 10 Team-Building Games For A Friendlier Classroom

5. The Worst-Case Scenario

Fabricate a scenario in which students would need to work together and solve problems to succeed, like being stranded on a deserted island or getting lost at sea. Ask them to work together to concoct a solution that ensures everyone arrives safely. You might ask them to come up with a list of 10 must-have items that would help them most, or a creative passage to safety. Encourage them to vote — everyone must agree to the final solution.

Skills: Communication, problem-solving

6. A Shrinking Vessel

This game requires a good deal of strategy in addition to team work. Its rules are deceptively simple: The entire group must find a way to occupy a space that shrinks over time, until they are packed creatively like sardines. You can form the boundary with a rope, a tarp or blanket being folded over or small traffic cones. (Skills: Problem-solving; teamwork)

7. Go for Gold

This game is similar to the “If you build it” game: Teams have a common objective, but instead of each one having the same materials, they have access to a whole cache of materials. For instance, the goal might be to create a contraption with pipes, rubber tubing and pieces of cardboard that can carry a marble from point A to point B in a certain number of steps, using only gravity.

Creative collaboration; communication; problem-solving

8. It’s a Mystery

Many children (and grown-ups) enjoy a good mystery, so why not design one that must be solved cooperatively? Give each student a numbered clue. In order to solve the mystery — say, the case of the missing mascot — children must work together to solve the clues in order. The “case” might require them to move from one area of the room to the next, uncovering more clues.

Skills: Problem-solving, communication

9. 4-Way Tug-of-War 

That playground classic is still a hit — not to mention inexpensive and simple to execute. For a unique variation, set up a multi-directional game by tying ropes in such a way that three or four teams tug at once. Some teams might choose to work together to eliminate the other groups before going head-to-head.

Skills: Team work; sportsmanship

10. Keep it Real

This open-ended concept is simple and serves as an excellent segue into problem-based learning. Challenge students to identify and cooperatively solve a real problem in their schools or communities. You may set the parameters, including a time limit, materials and physical boundaries.

Skills: Problem-solving; communication

While education technology is a basic and crucial component of the 21st century classroom, educators must still ensure that students are engaging with each other in meaningful ways. Team-building exercises are a great way to do this, and because of this, they will never go out of style.

See Also: 10 Team-Building Games To Promote Critical Thinking 

Aimee Hosler is a writer and mother of two living in Virginia. She specializes in a number of topics, but is particularly passionate about education and workplace news and trends. She hold a B.S. in Journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and is a contributor to several websites including OnlineSchools.com; 10 Team-Building Games For Kids, Teenagers, or Adults

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