At the NYS TESOL Applied Linguistics Conference at Columbia’s Teachers College earlier this year, much was made of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the importance of giving ESL students ample opportunities to practice “higher order thinking skills” (HOTS).
This caused me to take a fresh look at my own lesson plans to make sure I was including activities that challenged my intermediate-level adult ELLs to sharpen their critical thinking skills. Assured by several presenters at the conference that “ranking” activities promote critical thinking, I took what otherwise might have been a pedestrian discussion topic focused on “What success means to you . . . ” and turned it into a lively HOTS activity. Here’s how:
We started with a small- group warm-up discussion of what students perceived to be the differences in the definitions of “success” in their countries and in the United States. Almost unanimously, students felt that success in the U.S. was defined largely in terms of wealth—“being rich” and “having a powerful and important job.”
I then wrote the following eight words/phrases on the board in random order:
CONNECTIONS HARD WORK FAMILY INCOME
LUCK LAST NAME SKIN COLOR
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN INTELLIGENCE
I told my students they had a task to do with their group, which was to rank these factors in terms of how much they thought the factors contributed to the likelihood of someone “succeeding” in the United States, in light of how they had earlier defined success. However, before ranking the eight factors I had written on the board, I challenged them to think about what factors might be missing from the list and add them in, so they had at least 10 factors to work with. Two groups added “education.” Other additions included “willpower,” “experience,” and “religion.”
The groups then spent about 30 minutes arguing and debating the ranking of the 10 factors. Once the groups had completed their work, I asked them to write their rank-ordered lists on the board, for the other groups to review and ponder. Here are the lists they came up with, starting with what they considered the most important factor at the top, and the least important at the bottom:
|Rank Order||Group #1||Group #2||Group #3|
|#1||Family income||Willpower||Country of origin|
|#2||Connections||Hard work||Family income|
|#6||Skin color||Family income||Luck|
|#7||Country of origin||Country of origin||Skin color|
|#8||Hard work||Last name||Religion|
|#9||Luck||Skin color||Last name|
I then mixed the groups up so that a representative of each group now found themselves speaking to their counterparts from the other two groups. I asked them to compare and contrast the lists. In what ways were they similar? How did they differ? And why?
It was intriguing, for instance, to see that every group had independently ranked “intelligence” as #3 on their list and that “connections” were ranked among the top five factors by all three groups. But there were also significant differences among the groups, which made for lively and robust discussions, as students challenged each other to explain their differing rankings and to give examples to support their rankings.
What did Group #3 mean by “religion” and why did they add it as a relevant but low-rated factor, whereas groups #1 and 2 added “education” and rated it relatively high? Why did group #2 think that “willpower” was the single most important factor in determining success in the United States while group #1 thought that “family income” was the most important? Why did “hard work” count for so little in the estimation of two of the groups? The permutations and discussion opportunities were endless.
Finally, students—virtually all of whom are immigrants working in survival jobs—discussed the extent to which they thought they did or did not have “connections” that would help them succeed in the United States. True to the generally (and surprisingly) optimistic tone of the entire exercise, several were able to give examples of valuable “connections” they had forged in the United States which they felt had helped them or would help them in the future. All in all, it was an engaging activity that kept students speaking at length for at least 75 minutes.
Of course, if you are teaching EFL instead of ESL, you could tweak this activity by asking students to identify and rank the factors that lead to success in the country where you are teaching, rather than what leads to success in the United States.
How might you add to or change this activity for your context?