The best personal qualities we can have beyond school don't simply define what we've learned...
How can students own their learning with critical thinking activities they’ll really love? Allowing our students to take stands on issues that matter to them engages the classroom in a way that fosters great critical thinking.
Who? What? Why? When? Where? How? When they can relate these questions to themselves and exercise personal self-reflection, we build community and “heart-centered” learning.
10 Great Critical Thinking Activities
Students pair up according to similar physical attributes determined by the facilitator. These include hair color, eye color, hand size, and height. For each attribute, students discuss times when they were discriminated against because of it. They then take on the roles as victim, perpetrator, or bystander and discuss.
When posed with a thought-provoking prompt, students line themselves up along a U-shaped continuum representing where they stand on that issue. The sides of the U are opposite extremes, with the middle being neutral. The teacher starts a discussion by giving equal opportunity for individuals in each area of the continuum to speak about their stand. The students use “I” statements when stating their opinion.
Writing (or drawing) and silence are used as tools to slow down thinking and allow for silent reflection, unfiltered. By using silence and writing, students can focus on other viewpoints. This activity uses a driving question, markers, and Big Paper (poster-sized is best). Students work in pairs or threes to have a conversation on the Big Paper.
Students can write at will, but it must be done in silence after a reflection on the driving question. This strategy is great for introverts, and provides a ready made visual record of thought for later.
Students are given time to consider their feelings on a thought-provoking abstract or concrete image. Next, they come up with words that describe their reactions—trapped, free, angry, joyful, etc. They are then paired up and one person is the sculptor, while the other is the “clay.” The sculptor poses the clay into a form that artfully displays the word they wish to portray. Here are some guidelines:
- Sculptors can either physically mold the “clay” or act as a mirror for them to show the “clay” the position/image they want.
- Images can be concrete or abstract.
- Sculptors must treat their clay with gentleness and respect (very important!).
- There are no wrong answers; whatever image you get is fine.
- All body sculpting must be done in silence.
Understanding different viewpoints is a great way to delve deeply into a topic. 5 to 10 students are given character sheets. These might include gender, age, family status (married, single, how many children, etc.), occupation, education level and significant life events. The group is also given a historical event or similar topic.
Students can create identity charts in collaboration with each other to determine their character’s viewpoint. When they can adequately represent their character, what follows is a “cafe conversation.” Don’t forget to go over guidelines on how to respectfully disagree! Allow at least 20 minutes for a conversation.
Other Critical Thinking Activities
Students take on the role of “experts” or “specialists” of a particular topic. Then a panel of experts is assembled to get the larger picture.
Charts to document “What I Know” and “What I Want to Know” and after learning has occurred, “What I Learned.”
A classic tool to guide students in relevant and meaningful discussion, and to build community.
Like a real town meeting, individual students are “given the floor” and a time limit to express their views.
In groups, create a dramatic script based on the ideas within a given text. Do not script word for word. The idea is to get off the page and represent the idea in the students’ own words.
Bring It to Your Classroom
Allowing students room to think deeply and discuss openly during critical thinking activities is the key to them taking true responsibility for the learning. Through these kinds of activities, we foster real thinkers and life-long learners.
For a great resource for critical thinking activities that are instantly usable in your class and includes full assessment rubrics and more, pick up a copy of our Critical Thinking Companion.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Mar 21, 2016, updated September 18, 2021