How can students own their learning with critical thinking activities they’ll really love? Here are some amazing critical thinking activities that you can do with your students. You'll find even more critical thinking games in our most popular book, The Critical Thinking Companion.
10 Terrific Critical Thinking Activities
1. Defining the Problem
Albert Einstein once said that if given an hour to solve a problem, he would spend five minutes on the solution and the rest of that hour defining the problem. So it is with Solution Fluency, the first stage of which is—you guessed it—defining the problem!
Critical thinking in problem-solving means knowing exactly what it is you are trying to solve, and that means clearly defining the problem. Begin this exercise with pinpointing a problem and then asking these kinds of crucial questions.
- What are the details of the challenge we face?
- What do we want to overcome specifically?
- What do we know about this problem?
- Why is it important to address?
- Is this a time-sensitive problem?
- How does it affect me, the community, or the world?
- Where do we begin?
2. Classroom Gallery
Organizing a classroom gallery walk is a simple way to ignite learners’ imaginations, get them moving around, and engage them in varying discussions about arts and issues of every kind. To mix things up, you can do a different theme each week or month.
The idea is simple. All you do is turn your classroom into a display modelled after what you might find in an art gallery. How you do it is up to you. Use images, documents, objects, and anything else related to the chosen theme.
Once you’ve got it set up, students walk around and visit the different “exhibits” in the classroom. They ask and respond to questions, make observations, and record ideas and insights, and share them with each other in their respective groups.
Here are some theme ideas you can try out in your class:
- Create a walk of political cartoons and memes.
- Focus on a famous writer, leader, philanthropist, scientist, or other important historical figure and include stories, facts, and quotes from that person’s life.
- Expand on a theme such as “growth mindset” and offer activities, quote discussions, and examples for students to explore.
- Use media like video or animations to create visual interest.
3. Do a Film or Book Review
Here is an analytical exercise students can enjoy through experiencing their favourite films, books, or television shows. The goal is to get them thinking critically about what they are consuming rather than simply viewing it passively. It’s a great collaborative activity too because gaining insights from others can be valuable in helping learners think and observe in different ways.
After learners have finished a book or film or show, have them discuss questions like these:
- What did I enjoy most?
- What did I enjoy least?
- Was there a message or moral to this story?
- How can this be applied in daily life?
- Did the story engage my emotions? How did it leave me feeling?
Were the characters relatable, and did their journeys
- How did this compare to stories of a similar nature?
- Do I feel the author achieved their goals?
4. Asking the "3 Cs"
Achieving transformational learning begins the way all other learning does—with a question. That means encouraging critical thinking, introspection, and personal interest in the questions we ask our learners.
These questions are the ones we ask learners most often, and we've seen them used by teachers as the provocations for achieving transformational learning all over the world. They can work the same way for your own learners.
- What are you CURIOUS about? What subjects and topics are exciting to learners? What do they want to learn about? Asking these things is empowering to them. It indicates that their ideas and opinions have value and that we cherish their potential for independent thought and action.
- What are you CONCERNED about? It is surprising to realize just how deeply connected kids are to the issues of the world, and their awareness of the fact that many of these issues are quite serious. We'll never know what they're worried about, or how much they want to help, until we ask them.
- What do you want to CREATE in the world? How we hand responsibility for learning to students involves giving them space to do what they do naturally. Our learners' inherent abilities and desires to create and collaborate are fuelled by the right processes for critical thinking and problem-solving.
5. Fact vs. Opinion
This exercise is about differentiating between fact and opinion. A fact can be proven either true or false. An opinion is an expression of feeling or point-of-view and cannot be proven true or false.
Place statements on paper or on a whiteboard that are either fact or opinion. If it’s a fact, learners mark the statement with an F and explain how it can be proven. If it’s an opinion, they use an O and briefly explain why they feel it can’t be proven. Have them work in groups and use the guiding questions below, and also come up with others.
- How can this statement be proven beyond a doubt?
- Does the statement have a bias?
- Is the statement based on verified information or assumption? How can we tell?
- Does the statement make use of descriptive language to appeal to our emotions?
- Is there anything misleading about this statement?
- Are the facts reliable?
- Are the opinions based on facts?
- If we all agree on something, does that make it a fact?
- How else can we verify something?
6. Feeling the Fear (and Doing it Anyway)
Anticipatory thinking is an effective critical thinking and emotional management exercise for coping with fear and anxiety. It’s all about projecting the mind into the future and analyzing many possible outcomes instead of just imagining the worst one.
Think of something that you are afraid of doing—it could be anything at all. Now, explore this internal line of questioning and jot down your answers:
- What’s the worst possible thing that could happen?
- What is the best thing that could happen?
- How does my preferred outcome look to me?
- Do I have any control over the outcome? To what degree?
- Can I ask anyone for help or advice?
- If the worst happens, will I still be all right?
- What is my plan for facing the worst?
- After I face the situation and move past it, what are my next steps? How will I apply what I’ve learned?
7. Who is My Hero?
What is the definition of a hero? What does it mean to be truly heroic in our time? Everybody needs a hero, and it’s time to write about yours.
Think of someone in your own life that you consider to be heroic, and who you feel embodies your own ideals and values in action. As you explore this, jot down answers to the questions below.
- What is my definition of a “hero”?
- Who is a true hero to me?
- Why do I see this person as heroic?
- What have they done specifically that caused me to feel this way about them?
- How do they personify my own dreams and ideals to be a better and stronger person?
- Am I a hero to anyone? If so, why?
- Why do we need heroes and mentors in life?
- What do I want to be remembered for most of all?
- How will I achieve this in my life?
8. The Circles of Possibility
The Circles of Possibility are a powerful critical thinking exercise for understanding ourselves and the world around us, and also visualizing meaningful solutions to the issues, challenges, and questions that affect us all.
These steps are a useful collaborative problem-solving exercise that also develops meaningful lifelong learning skills like creative thinking, information literacy, cultural empathy, self-awareness, global citizenship, world view, and many more.
Begin with a problem, and ask: What does this mean …
- ... to ME?
- ... to my FAMILY?
- ... to my COMMUNITY?
- ... to my COUNTRY?
- ... to the WORLD?
Take this exercise one step farther by asking learners to map out what they can do to change any negative impact both in the short and long term.
9. A Grand Solution
Our world will always have problems that need critically considered and brilliantly designed solutions—so it’s a good thing you’re here! What do you think is the biggest problem in the world today?
Write it down, and think about how you’d solve it if you had everything you needed and anything was possible. Consider the questions that follow as you dream without limits about a solution.
- What is the most urgent problem in the world today?
- What is the background of this problem?
- How did it originate?
- Has a solution been attempted before?
- Why has the problem gotten worse?
- What do I feel is the best solution for this problem?
- Why do I feel my solution will work?
- What would it take to make my solution a reality?
- What can I do about the problem RIGHT NOW?
10. The Socratic Seminar
The Socratic Method is an engaging and challenging way to get students exploring questions that matter while developing sharp critical thinking skills. In the Socratic Method, a mediator leads a discussion by asking questions, and each question is based upon the response given to the previous question.
In addition to honing critical thinking skills, the Socratic Method offers a great example of how to use essential and herding questions in class. Students can prepare well beforehand by reading the appropriate text and formulating questions as though they were entering a formal debate. Work with students to also come up with a clear list of guidelines and expectations for the seminar.
On the day the seminar begins, the teacher will be best prepared to lead the discussion in the beginning. At first, students will be merely getting their feet wet with the whole process, but ultimately you want them to be taking the proceedings over and leading the discussions themselves. Since the learners’ thought processes and inquiry are the focal points of the Socratic Seminar, it makes sense to involve students in these structural decisions.
The guidelines you’ll agree to follow are necessary, such as when to turn discussion—a sharing of ideas—into a debate, which is characterized by persuasion and challenging of opinions. Throughout the process, your role will be one of mediator and guide for the discussion, steering it back to the right trajectory if it should happen to go off the rails.
As always, do a debrief with students and work together to assess the seminar's effectiveness on your learning goals.
A Community of Critical Thinkers
These ten critical thinking activities have a welcome home in our very own Wabisabi Learning Community. Educators from all over the world are using them and others to inspire learners to become great critical thinkers. We'd love for you to join us in transforming education the world over.
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