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Discussing Differences

Stand on the line


Good critical thinking occurs when many facets of an issue or concept are explored. This exploration can be encouraged by separating students in some way based upon their perspectives or opinions and inviting them to explain and advocate for their views. If the topic is not one about which students already have an opinion, the teacher can assign students to a position.

The activity

This activity is useful either for smaller classes or for "delegates" to volunteer in a larger class.

  1. Choose one side of the room to represent one extreme of an opinion or positions, while the other side of the room represents the opposite view.
  2. Students are invited to stand up and place themselves physically "on the line" where they feel their views put them.
  3. The teacher then facilitates discussion by first asking to hear from students who place themselves at either end of the line, then working inward, with the middle-most students speaking last.


If the topic is an emotionally-charged issue, the teacher must be willing to lay clear and firm ground rules about communicating with scholarly respect, to slow the discussion down when it begins to accelerate emotionally, and even to call a halt to discussion if disrespectful discord looms.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.