Critical Thinking Exercises For Middle School Students

For Teachers Updated November 9, 2012

Critical Thinking Resources for Middle School Teachers

By Room 241 Team November 9, 2012

Middle school teachers of all subjects are interested in fostering critical thinking in their classroom, but it’s not always an easy task to incorporate in the never-ending quest to match lesson plans to state learning standards. Here are seven resources that will easily add critical thinking to your lesson plans.

The Critical Thinking Community

The Critical Thinking Community is a resource site designed to encourage critical thinking in students. There are teaching strategies, a glossary of important terms, as well as articles by thought leaders in critical thinking, such as one by Bertrand Russell on the importance of developing critical thinking skills. Visit the site.

Here are some recommended pages for critical thinking strategies for the middle school classroom.

  • Teaching tactics: Strategies teachers can use to encourage critical thinking in class. For example, asking students to read the instructions of an assignment and then repeat them in their own words. Visit the page.
  • Remodeled lessons: How to take a routine lesson plan and remodel it to foster critical thinking. The page has five standard lesson plans, a critique of why they should be changed, and suggestions for improving the lesson plan. Visit the page.
  • 35 dimensions of critical thought: Strategies are organized into three groups: Affective, Cognitive Macro-Abilities, and Cognitive Micro-Skills. Each strategy details its importance for student development. Visit the page.

Success story: tips for teaching critical thinking

KIPP King Collegiate High School has developed 10 ideas for teaching critical thinking. These methods are applicable for middle school aged students, giving them exposure to thinking critically before arriving to high school. One notable technique from KIPP is to teach students to constantly ask questions. Visit the page.

Critical thinking in the 21st century

Microsoft Education offers material for teaching critical thinking for the 21st-century student. What’s special about this guide is its focus on thinking critically on the Internet. Lesson plans focus on fine-tuning search skills, how to evaluate discoveries and then incorporate findings in student work. Visit the site.

Creative and critical thinking activities

On teachers.net Gazette, a teacher named Emmy recommends five specific activities that are easy to use, take little preparation, and stimulate creative thinking. The most popular feature of this site is its teacher collaboration. Visit the page.

Back to basics

This site details the basics about critical thinking: what it is, the characteristics, and why it should be taught. It also provides several differing perspectives about critical thinking for readers to consider. Different teaching strategies are also discussed, plus links to helpful resources. Visit the site.

Riddle me that

BrainDen.com has a large number of critical-thinking riddles and brain teasers that can be used in the classroom. The answers are provided for the teacher as well as tips for stimulating further discussion on the topic. Teachers can use the exercises as warmup activities at the beginning of class, or at the end of class on days when work is unexpectedly completed early. Visit the site.

Brain boosters

Discovery Education has a “Brain Boosters” section listing specific logical thinking challenges and brain teasers that students love. The activities can be done with groups or individually. The answers are provided for the teacher. Visit the site.

Tags: Engaging Activities, Middle School (Grades: 6-8)

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.  

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