A Protocol for Crushing the Critical Thinking Questions


Heads up: I’m going to start by talking about science instruction, but this is a protocol that can apply to ANY class.

When I was a rookie science teacher, despite my inexperience, I still knew the kinds of questions that I wanted students to answer: they would require thinking, synthesis of ideas, and the application of those ideas.  This was what I called “critical thinking”.  An obvious place for questions like these was  in the follow up with lab experiences.  At the end of a Chem lab on flame tests, I might ask the question, “Which is the most important – the anion or the cation, to determine the flame color?  Provide evidence.”     At the end of an activity in bio that simulated gene insertion, I would ask, “Why are some people concerned about extra base pairs between the inserted gene, and the beginning of the bacterial DNA?”

I would get the following responses:  1% to 10% might answer the question.  Another 10% would come to me and ask for help.  The remaining 80-90% would leave it blank, knowing that they had done most of the lab, and they were content with the C or B grade they would receive.   With a lot of blank stares at me when I went over the work, I would end up answering the question myself.  As I heard myself answer the o-so-thoughtful question I had formulated, I imagined the slacker-thinkers smiling to themselves, quietly marking another victory in their quest for vapidity.

With some experience under my belt, I have come to understand that questions that require critical thought are one of the best uses of group discussion.  Not only that, interesting questions help students see the value of groups more than almost any other kind of group work.   Because the answers to complex questions frequently require some synthesis of data, knowledge, and even experience, then each group member has an opportunity to help formulate an answer – and students can use each other to develop an answer that might not have been as complete without the thoughts of others.

With that understanding, I formulated a protocol that works beautifully, so that I get 100% engagement, rather than 20%.

  1. Students in groups of 4
  2. Groups should provide letters to each person: A, B, C, D
  3. Present students with the question. When I did it recently, I was asking the question about extra base pairs in biology.
  4. Groups discuss their thinking about the answer, with a time constraint (I gave them 2.5 minutes). Person A writes the group’s answer.
  5. Assign Person C to take brief notes on the share-out from each group.
  6. Person B stands up, and reads the answer from his/her group. Person C in every other group is writing a synopsis of what person B from each group is saying.
  7. ALL groups report out.
  8. Groups use notes from person C to evaluate: which group had the best answer? Again, groups have limited time for discussion so that conversation is directed and efficient.
  9. A group can choose itself for the best answer, but if they do so, they have to choose a second place, and why they chose that group.
  10. Person D records group’s decision and reasoning, then stands up and reads the group’s rationale.
  11. You as the facilitator follow up: what were the arguments you liked? Did anyone not get an answer you were looking for?  This is a potential teachable moment.  You can reinforce some messages, alert students about misconceptions, or use the students answers to bootstrap to the next concept you need to address in the course.

I used this last week. In each class, about 2 – 4 groups would  come up with the point that I wanted them to understand: extra bases worry people because they could code for unexpected proteins.   The other groups identified that as their favorite answer.  There was a lot of, “Oh yeah huh!”   It gave me occasion to then say, “Pull out your notes, and let’s write both the question, and our class’s favorite answer.”

The group conversations ALSO alerted me to misconceptions, and how much base knowledge the students had, or didn’t have.

Since I work at a New Tech school, I could give my students a collaboration grade for the work.

Finally, the share-out provides a great assessment for my teaching.  If the kids can synthesize enough to adequately answer the question, I have probably done some reasonable teaching before the interaction.  If they cannot, then I need to examine what came before, to make sure that what I have been doing has been enough.

This protocol can be used in just about any course.  Here are some kinds of questions that might work:

“In the fairy tale of Snow White, is the apple a symbol?  If so, for what?  And does that have other implications for other symbols?”

“Is 2106 United States closer to the Roman Republic, or the Roman Empire?”  (this is a rather heavy question.  If you teach history, maybe you can give a better example.)

“Provide an English translation for this passage written in Spanish.”

Here are my “leave” questions that will so compel you that the comments section below will stretch into the horizon.  (Right?  Right?)

  • What questions from your own discipline would be appropriate for this protocol?
  • What tweaks might you make to this protocol?




4 thoughts on “A Protocol for Crushing the Critical Thinking Questions

  1. This is a fun game.
    “Critical Thinking Critical Friends” (too long)
    “Critical Question Review”
    “Kicking A$$ with our Answers”
    “ANSWER THE QUESTION NOW!” (must be yelled at the beginning of every session)
    “Answers and Analysis” (ha! Like AA, only for the classroom)

    Yeah, fun, but I’m not very good at coming up with anything usable.

    Your turn.


  2. This is great, and reminds me of methods used at UNM for tutoring groups of students — instead of repeatedly responding to the same questions, we would break the room into small groups (~4) of students with similar concerns and ask a couple of questions related to their work. It generally seemed to generate more thought and helped combat the culture of “write the answer and forget it” which is all-too-common. Of course, as tutors we didn’t have to worry about assigning anyone grades; I do like how you include all group members fairly and democratically.

    The group thinking also reminds me of a game I sometimes play with other physics/science folks we call “Quick Explain It!” (feel free to steal). When walking about campus (for example) and something interesting happens, like a loose branch oscillating or some updrafts stirring leaves, someone says “quick explain it!” and others offer their thoughts on the physical origin of what everyone is seeing. Maybe this would be good to keep students productive on field trips?

    Anyway, thanks for the idea sharing!


    • Ha! I suspect you played “quick explain it!” in your head long before you formalized the process with others.

      I like your grouping technique – according to the question people need help with. We call that “affinity grouping”, though that term is also used for grouping kids according to their interests also.


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