Tag Archives: critical thinking

Headline hangman – get your pupils discussing today’s news

The chief complaint by pupils about schooling is that it is not relevant. It bears little connection to the “real world” as they experience it. As part of my ongoing series of practical activities to promote “critical thinking” I would recommend the following quick activity to address this in an engaging way.

  • Headline Hangman

Everyone knows Hangman. So, take any headline from the newspaper of the day and play “Headline Hangman”. You draw lines for each letter and separate each word. If pupils guess a letter correctly, enter that letter wherever it appears in the headline. Incorrect guesses lead to the gradual construction of the hangman.

Introduce local rules at your discretion. For example, pupils can’t call out 2 vowels in a row; if more than one pupil calls out a letter at the same time you can add to the hangman; pupils can guess a whole word but if they get it wrong, you can add 2 lines to the hangman etc etc.

  • Benefits

I have always found this game amazingly popular, with children, and adults on courses too. Apart from being quick, its benefits are many.

At word level, children can learn spelling rules or anomalies. If a pupil calls out a letter, you can ask them where they think it goes and why. It becomes quickly apparent those pupils who think strategically.

At sentence and text level, there is always room for discussion about the choice of words, because headlines often contain alliteration or wordplay. After the headline has been guessed, you can invite pupils to see whether they could improve on it, substitute synonyms to make it more or less shouty, more nuanced, less biased or whatever.

  • Real world events

But even more importantly, the language learning is undertaken in the context of real world events. When the headline is guessed, it’s important to show the actual headline from the paper or Internet immediately so that pupils know the material is of the real world and not made up for the classroom. The key is to select something that interests you but this activity lends itself especially well to global events or issues that invite discussion. The very topicality, the fact that the stuff is in the papers today, makes it gripping and relevant.

Obviously, the opportunity also arises to become immersed in media literacy – the nature of truth as perceived through the prism of a report and so on.

In a crowded curriculum, Headline Hangman affords you and your class the opportunity to discuss news stories frequently and you will be surprised at how this can inspire pupils to read about current events. Your discussion about the article can be as long or short as you wish, but regular practice can only enhance speaking and listening skills and the ability of your class to argue and disagree gracefully.

Simple, but effective (The Independent)

I’ve used this game for ages and can’t remember where I stole it from. Apologies, but I would love to hear of any similar games or activities you have to introduce topical events into the fabric of teaching and learning…


Critical thinking – engaging pupils

I was disheartened to read this report in the Guardian that take up rates for critical thinking at A-level is declining. For all sorts of reasons, critical thinking skills are vital to us as individuals and as a society.

  • Why critical thinking is important

The ability to think independently, that is to assess information and evaluate it for accuracy and sense; to make connections; to understand hidden meaning; to unpick false premises and to know how to disagree with courtesy – just some of the armoury we need to cope with and make sense of the tsunami of information we encounter.

But for the health of society, rigorous thinking is itself critical, in order that we don’t become to prey to demagoguery or mob hysteria. Additionally, thinking that is critical and creative has the possibility of looking forward rather than deferring to authority or the mistaken beliefs of the past.

  • Freedom

I like Tagore’s take on this, linking critical thinking to a sense of freedom:      “Our mind does not gain true freedom by acquiring materials for knowledge and possessing other people’s ideas but by forming its own standards of judgement and producing its own thoughts.”

So what practical ideas are there for teaching the mechanics of critical thinking, especially in the earlier years? Over the next weeks I hope to blog on these. First up is this simple but incredibly effective activity.

  • “Odd one out” activity

Choose any 3 objects, the first to hand preferably, and ask pupils to choose, in their mind, the odd one out and to consider why. Take feedback, insisting on explanations. Of course, there is no one correct answer and pupils will quickly realise this as they hear the different answers. 

Example: paper – cup – computer

Answers: Paper because it’s made out of wood                                                                                           Cup because you can drink out of it                                                                                             Computer because it requires electricity

This exercise benefits from repetition because pupils get better at finding different and more interesting reasons why an item is the odd one out. After only a few days you will be amazed at how inventive and creative even small children can be.

This exercise, which you can extend in myriad ways, for instance by setting particular criteria (e.g. thinking about the environment which is the odd one out?) is quick to organise, enjoyed by pupils who like the fact there is no single correct answer and its deceptive simplicity masks important learning.

  • Benefits
  1.  Pupils learn to back up opinions with evidence, the cornerstone of rational thinking.
  2. With practice, pupils become increasingly creative in their thinking.
  3. Pupils acknowledge that different views can be held simultaneously and it’s not threatening.

To avoid a mindset where children only begin to identify differences, it’s worth varying the activity occasionally by asking pupils to find something that connects the items. Perhaps too often children are asked to identify differences, but particularly in the field of human relations it is as important for children to be able to find similarities.

I’d be really interested to find out how you get on with this or if you have similar activities to tell me about.

Why am I this and not that?

A favourite joke of mine is Emo Phillips’ discussion of divisions. This must apply to every group that’s ever been…

I was walking across a bridge one day when I saw a man standing on the edge about to jump. So I ran over – “Stop! Don’t do it, there’s so much to live for” I pleaded.  “Like what?” he said.  “Well, are you religious or atheist?”  “Religious,” he said. “Me too! Are you Christian, Jewish, Muslim…?”  “Christian,” he said. “Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”  “Protestant,” he said. “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”   “Baptist,” he said.  “Wow, me too! Are you Baptist church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” “Baptist Church of God” he said. “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”  “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” he said. “Me too! Amazing! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”  He said, ” Reformation of 1915.”  So I said  “Die, heretic scum!” and  pushed him off the bridge.

Whilst it is clearly the case that we define ourselves partly by what we are not (“I never read the Murdoch press”,  “I wouldn’t support Man U if you paid me” etc etc), this can appear ludicrous. I’ve often felt that our constructed tribal loyalties, now that they have little to do with survival, are expressions of an emptiness in our sense of identity.

As educators are we not sometimes culpable of reinforcing these divisions. When we thoughtlessly teach about “different cultures” and emphasise the differences before exploring what is similar, we are chipping away at our common humanity. The consequence of this is to create barriers to empathy, the impulse to understand what it means to stand in someone else’s shoes.

I appreciate Malcolm X had a different perspective – in the heat of the Civil Rights movement he sought to emphasise not the common humanity espoused by Martin Luther King, but the separateness of races. But I wonder whether he would remain of that view today… there is far greater genetic variation (about 94%)within so-called racial groups than between conventional racial groupings (about 6%).

As Gary Younge succinctly put it in his marvellous book Who are we …“In short, we are much more alike than we are unalike.” So do we really need to spend so much defining ourselves by what we are not?

Miserable but safe…We can do better by our children

The  joke, usually with Jewish mother as protagonist, goes something like this…

Mother and child on the beach. “Put on your hat…Let me put on more suncream on your arms…and legs…Watch out for the hot sand…But don’t catch a chill…Come here…Now! Look,you nearly fell in the sea…not with that boy, he’s dirty…The sun’s too hot, come under the shade…Cover yourself…not like that, like this…Now go and play”

 “Oi”, she observes to her beach neighbour as her son totters away, “such a nervous child!”

  • Elf ‘n safety

Are we not doing something similar to our children as we watch anxiously over them and determine with iron certainty what is or isn’t good for them? Two apparently unrelated articles in the Guardian caught my eye.  Both go to the question about what it is appropriate for children to contemplate in educational settings. What is it ok to teach about and what is beyond the pale?

 In Tim Gill’s article “The end of zero risk in childhood”   he cites the  head of the Health and Safety Executive, Judith Hackitt :

the creeping culture of risk aversion puts at risk children’s preparation for adult life“.

A combination of factors – including sensationalist reporting, cowering or lazy teachers, bureaucrats, short term political vision together with Americanisation of our legal practice and insurance companies in on the act – all have led to a  “health and safety culture”. But in the UK understandable concerns about children’s wellbeing have been taken up to and beyond their logical conclusion. Now we are at the point where there is zero tolerance of risk. Hence Judith Hackitt’s remarks.

As Tim Gill reports, we do children no favours by bubble wrapping them so they do not encounter risk. This does not prepare them for anything. Treating children as “irredeemably stupid, as fragile as china plates, and utterly unable to learn from their mistakes” does not protect them; it leaves them vulnerable and ill prepared for assessing risk, which is after all, a daily fact of life.

In a UNICEF 2007 comparative survey of OECD countries measuring children’s wellbeing, UK children came second to last in terms of subjective well being, but did moderately well in “health and safety”. In other words our children are miserable, but pretty safe!

  • Same sex relationships – what’s the problem?

Then there was the report of the Billy Elliot writer, Lee Hall, who has spent the last year working on a community in Bridlington involving 400 people of all ages. Sounds like a great project. One of the characters is gay. As a consequence, one of the Primary schools has withdrawn their support, notwithstanding efforts to conciliate.

What is the fear? Really, what is the problem? Same sex relationships are a part of our society. Not only are they within the law, Equalities legislation dictates that no discrimination should be suffered by anyone because of their sexuality. I have noticed, as I support schools in implementing Global Citizenship, that dealing with same sex relationships is particularly challenging for some adults, who think it is an inappropriate topic to be discussing with children, especially young ones.

But when we dig a little deeper, the primary concern is that same sex relationships are confused, in the minds of those who find this subject distateful, with sex. Why does that misconception persist? Surely teachers would no more discuss sex between same sex couples as between heterosexuals. The teaching issue is simply about the diversity of loving relationships that exist in every town and probably village in the country. Whether or not individual teachers engage in same sex relationships is not the question. Children will not become infected by discussion of relationships – they merely become more aware. It may even help them stop using “gay” as a derogatory term. It certainly will raise the esteem of those children, who through no active choice of their own, are gay. And isn’t it our duty to enable all the children in our charge to flourish? How can we achieve that if we do not allow children to feel a sense of self worth?

  • Pupils’ concerns

As I’ve said before, pupils have questions and concerns. They are by nature curious. We do them a disservice if we silence or stifle their innate curiosity or fail to answer their questions, however crass they may appear. Sweeping difficult or contested issues under the carpet does not make them disappear…they resurface as inevitably as prejudice follows ignorance.

Children are so much more than merely vulnerable dependents. So have the courage to let your pupils explore and take risks, ask difficult questions and be prepared to tackle those discussions with an openness and honesty that models acceptance of our diverse community.

Please let me know what you think.

Global Citizenship – first principles for educators

Supporting schools seeking to promote Global Citizenship, both in the curriculum and as a whole school ethos, we’ve found that the following issues are key to success.

  • Promote critical thinking

Whether through P4C (Philosophy for children) or simply asking open ended questions to penetrate superficial ideas, critical thinking is the bedrock of any profound learning. I’ve always thought it’s hard to be racist if you employ critical thinking, especially if you practice it from a very young age. So  key questions in response to any opinion might be “What is your evidence for that?”  or“Can you think of any counter example?”

  • Challenge assumed knowledge and notions of what is normal

After all, what is normal? We tend to assume that our own world view is the default option. Consider the maps of the world that you probably have on display -The Mercator projection. It may have pictures on it. It’s got Europe slap bang in the middle, much bigger in comparison to, say, Africa than in reality. But have you tried displaying a map that has the Pacific at its centre, or the Arctic circle, or the Peter’s projection with South Africa at the top? These are just as valid world views…Imagine what the implications are for your own view of the world, or any given topic.

  • Recognise and challenge stereotypes

Obviously try to avoid “all” or “always” when describing a group of people. Try invariably to show a balance of images or objects if you are exploring distant localities, for example. Yes, there is abject poverty in parts of Africa, but do you routinely show the airports, hospitals, science labs, state of the art football stadia etc etc.? When you show pictures of Islam, do you show Nicolas Anelka as well as a bearded imam?

  • Represent diversity in our society

Check out, just as an example, any advert for an HE college from your local paper. Who is missing? Try this with a brochure for the National Trust. There is always a discussion to be had about tokenism, but consider whether you would want to see yourself represented, and apply that thinking as widely as possible. Now look at your displays, school council, governors…Who is represented and who’s missing?

  • Link local and global issues

Start simply with this – Find first the connections between you and the person depicted in the picture, for example. Seeek similarities before differences. This can be with younger children the fact we have hair, or skin or that we breathe the same air. When you use objects to explore this (a mobile phone or T-shirt), it’s not long before you could be exploring questions of conditions of manufacture, water footprint, trade inequality -real, interesting for your pupils and directly relevant to their future. This leads directly to more purposeful writing too…

  • Move beyond recycling and walk to school

Schools are increasingly addressing sustainability issues, especially in this UN decade of education for sustainable development. But we really need to up our game … If climate change is the real challenge for coming generations, shouldn’t we be teaching and learning much more meaningfully about how to live in a sustainable manner? More about this for another post I think.

Thanks as ever to my brilliant colleagues, Mary Young (@maryatedji) and Dan Sanders for their ideas, which I shamelessly use. Please let me know your views, so we can debate and add them…