Activities That Can Develop Critical Thinking

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.  

6 Exercises to Strengthen Your Critical Thinking Skills

Any fitness trainer will tell you how critical it is for you to develop and maintain a strong core. The core muscle groups in our bodies provide the foundational strength and stability that propel us through our daily lives.

Much like our physical core, leaders and managers have their own core—comprised not of muscles—but ofskills and behaviors essential for leading, managing and helping our firms and teams successfully navigate the challenges of the workplace and marketplace.

Know Your 4-Core Professional Skills

  1. Critical thinking skills—your ability to navigate and translate ambiguous or complex circumstances or seemingly random noise into meaningful patterns and insights.
  2. Operational skills—your ability to understand how the firm makes money and to translate resources into programs, revenues and profits as efficiently as possible.
  3. Leadership skills—your ability in this era of uncertainty and ambiguity to foster an environment that allows individuals to offer their best in terms of creativity and energy in pursuit of your team’s/firm’s cause.
  4. Connecting and relating skills—your ability to foster effective internal and external relationships and to engage effectively with different audiences at all levels of your firm.

While there are many more skills that we develop and draw upon in our professional lives, these 4 reign supreme. They are foundational to your ability to engage others, problem-solve, guide, motivate and navigate in organizational settings.

And like everything else in life, mastery requires hard work and ample practice. 

Our focus in this first post in the series on strengthening your core leadership skills is on critical thinking. 

6 Practical Exercises to Strengthen Your Critical Thinking Skills

  1. Read about other leaders and the challenges they faced and how they solved them. I love the book, "Strategy Rules: 5 Timeless Lessons from Bill Gates, Andy Grove and Steve Jobs," by Yoffie and Cusumano, as a way to jump-start your thinking. While I have a long list of reading suggestions, for business professionals, this one provides some great insights and lessons from three of the individuals most responsible for creating our technology-driven world. For those whose preferences run to history, try "Winston Churchill: Memoirs of the Second World War," where you get an up close and personal look at the nation and world-changing problems encountered by this war-time leader. If you don't like my suggestions, find subjects and authors who expose you to new ideas and challenge you to think differently. I encourage my coaching clients to read thought-provoking content for at least 20-minutes every day. 
  1. Exercise your critical thinking skills by analyzing your competitors. Study your  competitors and attempt to distill and describe their strategies and more importantly, how and where they make money. Strive to understand the customer groups they focus on and how and why they win and lose. Do the same for your own firm and identify opportunities for your firm to beat the competitors. Engage your customer-facing colleagues in this exercise to gain their insights on competitor strategies and opportunities. This type of intelligence gathering and analysis is an excellent exercise for your entire team. 
  2. Find an orphan problem and adopt it! In every organization, there are annoying problems no one claims as their own. Identify an orphan problem and ask for your boss's support in tackling it. For issues that cross functions, you'll need to pull together a team. Guide your team through the process of analyzing the problem, interviewing key stakeholders and developing potential solutions. In addition to gaining visibility as a leader and problem-solver, you will be exercising all 4 of your core professional skill sets with this activity!
  3. Figure out what keeps executives in your firm awake at night. Invite your boss or an executive to lunch and ask questions about the strategy and direction of the firm. Strive to understand the big challenges they see for the firm and ask for their views on the ideal strategy and key actions. You will gain invaluable insight into the big issues surrounding the firm's future and you will walk away with a better understanding of the complex challenges senior leaders grapple with on a daily basis. 
  1. Put a team on it. Guide your team through structured problem-solution development activities. Work with your team to assess problems from multiple viewpoints and develop alternative solutions. For example, a competitor’s announcement might be viewed as a threat. While you should guide the team through data gathering, analysis and countermeasure development, try also framing the situation as an opportunity. By launching a new offering, your competitor is investing resources in one area. Does this mean they will be saying no to other segments or stretched thin to defend their legacy offerings? Learning to reframe issues and problems and to develop multiple solution sets depending upon the frame, is a powerful use of your critical thinking skills. 
  2. Start and maintain a journal to chart your successes and mistakes. I encourage all of my coaching clients to log key decisions and expected outcomes and to reference these entries over time. By examining your assumptions and logic and comparing expected to actual outcomes, you gain insight into your own decision-making and critical thinking strengths and weaknesses.  

The Bottom-line for Now

Much like spending a few days in the gym won’t transform your body, developing your core professional skill sets is a career-long activity. Strengthening your critical thinking skills involves exercising your ability to assess situations, gather and analyze data and develop coherent, actionable plans, often in conjunction with the input from others. Seek out daily opportunities to exercise these skills and commit to a program of continuous improvement and learning. An active, fit brain will serve you well as a manager! 

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