What Is A Critical Thinking Activity

Rock or Feather?
A Critical-Thinking Activity

A simple activity can reveal much about the students you work with each day. Students make and defend their choices in this activity, called Rock or Feather? Included: Comments from teachers who've used the activity -- and a printable activity sheet!

Are you more like a rock or a feather? summer or winter? the city or the country? Which word in each of those word pairs best describes you, your personality, your dreams?

That's the idea behind a very simple activity that teacher Dick Fuller calls Rock or Feather? Last fall, Fuller shared the activity with members of an online listserv for middle-school teachers. Many teachers tried the idea and continue to use it.

Fuller, an exploratory teacher at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur, Georgia, first used the Rock or Feather? activity when he was an Outward Bound teacher. The idea behind the activity is simple, he says. Students make choices. For example, are they rocks or feathers? They have to choose one -- the one that describes them the best -- and they have to be able to explain why they made the choice.

Students might consider the following pairs:

  • drama or comedy
  • rock band or string quartet
  • clothesline or kite string
  • Big Mac or sirloin steak
  • river or pond
  • bat or ball
Click Rock or Feather? for a printable work sheet to use with your students.

"Of course, a lot of kids want to be able to pick something in the middle," added Fuller. That isn't allowed, however.

Some teachers might use the activity as a simple either-or checklist; kids use a pencil to mark their choices and a follow-up discussion ensues. Fuller puts a little more action into the activity. "Just to make it interesting and physical," he said, "instead of using it as a work sheet exercise, I make all the kids stand in the middle of the room. Then, for each pair of words, they have to move to one side of the room or the other. This makes it a little tougher for them because their actions are right out there and they can't hide."

Teacher Janice Robertson likes the Rock or Feather? activity so much that she uses it as an icebreaker when school opens. "The activity quickly let me know which kids have higher-level reasoning [skills], which kids are shy about speaking out loud, and which kids are followers," said Robertson, a seventh-grade teacher at Tecumseh Public School in Mississauga, Ontario.

Like Fuller, Robertson lets her students move around the room when she uses the Rock or Feather? activity. "The students really appreciate being able to move around, and they watch in amazement as some of their peers choose and justify their -- to them -- bizarre selections," she told Education World.

The variations on the Rock or Feather? activity are endless. Some teachers use it as a simple checklist. Others give the assignment for homework and ask students to write the reasons for their choices. Some use the individual word pairs as prompts for journal writing. Others invite students to think up word pairs to add to the activity.

All agree that it's a great opportunity to challenge students to think critically, make choices, and learn about themselves and others.

"I use the activity as a time filler in my eighth-grade health classes," said Anitha Diol, a health teacher at Dowagiac (Michigan) Middle School. "The students always laugh when I tell them their options. The students seem to like it, and I enjoy learning more about them."

Some teachers use another variation on the activity -- one that uses four corners of the room rather than two sides. One teacher posted to Middle-L some examples of four-choices questions:

  • Are you a 911 Porsche, a Cadillac Seville, a Toyota Camry, or a Ford Windstar?
  • Are you a mansion, a farmhouse, an apartment, or a semi-detached?
  • Are you an elephant, a gazelle, a Siamese cat, or a falcon?

"I have to confess I did use the four-corner ones because I like forcing adolescents to make decisions," added Robertson. "I also wrote the words on construction paper and had them arranged in piles -- one pile in each corner. When we were ready to go to the next group of choices, one student in each corner lifted the top card. I really believe that, whenever possible, being able to see the words as well as hear them helps students think."

Dick Fuller has tried yet another twist with eye-opening results. He has the advantage of teaching seventh graders in a single-sex setting. Last year, he did the activity with his all-boy and all-girl classes. This year he did it with the same kids, who are now in mixed-gender eighth-grade classes.

"In the seventh grade, girls and boys could be either a rock or a feather," recalled Fuller. "They could justify their answers and there was no competition between the sexes to get in the way. In that all-male setting, there was mutual acceptance of all the answers. [The same was true in the all-girl classes.] With the same group, now in a mixed class in the eighth grade, all the girls were feathers and all the boys were rocks! From that, we had a springboard into a good talk about stereotypes.

"Boys not only will talk, they want to talk," added Fuller, who has observed that in his all-boy classes. "I believe, however, they are not given much opportunity and they are forced to suffer from lack of expression because 'real men' don't express their feelings.... Separated, without the competition of girls in the class, they will talk about the double standards they face, how they pick role models, their fears and successes, and the pain of death and divorce. They just need to be given the chance."

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor in Chief
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 10/15/2002
Updated 01/08/2010

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.  


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.  

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