Skip to main content

Teaching Critical Thinking

Help your students develop their critical thinking skills with these lesson plans. “Could Lincoln Be Elected Today?” is a resource developed from a Annenberg Public Policy Center political literacy project called FlackCheck. All the other critical thinking lessons were produced by the FactCheck.org education project called FactCheckEd.

Could Lincoln Be Re-elected Today?

FlackCheck.org, a political literacy project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, compares ads from the 2020 presidential election to a series of ads that it created using modern-day tactics for the 1864 Lincoln vs. McClellan race to help students recognize patterns of deception and develop critical thinking skills.

“Could Lincoln Be Elected Today?”

This lesson uses a series of ads that were created using modern-day tactics for the 1864 Lincoln vs. McClellan race. Students will learn to recognize flaws in arguments in general and political ads in particular. Students will learn to recognize flaws in arguments in general and political ads in particular and to examine the criteria for evaluating candidates, past and present, for the presidency.

Background Beliefs

We’ve all had that experience, the one where we start arguing with someone and find that we disagree about pretty much everything. When two people have radically different background beliefs (or worldviews), they often have difficulty finding any sort of common ground. In this lesson, students will learn to distinguish between the two different types of background beliefs: beliefs about matters of fact and beliefs about values. They will then go on to consider their most deeply held background beliefs, those that constitute their worldview. Students will work to go beyond specific arguments to consider the worldviews that might underlie different types of arguments.

Building a Better Argument

Whether it’s an ad for burger chains, the closing scene of a “Law & Order” spin-off, a discussion with the parents about your social life or a coach disputing a close call, arguments are an inescapable part of our lives. In this lesson, students will learn to create good arguments by getting a handle on the basic structure. The lesson will provide useful tips for picking out premises and conclusions and for analyzing the effectiveness of arguments.

Language of Deception

It’s a phased withdrawal, not a retreat. Except that the terms actually mean the same thing. But “retreat” sounds much worse, so savvy politicians avoid using it. That’s because they understand that there is a difference between the cognitive (or literal) meaning and the emotive meaning of a word. This lesson examines the ways in which terms that pack an emotional punch can add power to a statement – and also ways in which emotive meanings can be used to mislead, either by doing the reader’s thinking for him or by blinding her to the real nature of the issue.

Everything You Know Is Wrong 1: Us and Them

Good reasoning doesn’t come naturally. In fact, humans are instinctively terrible reasoners. Most of the time, the way our brains work isn’t rational at all. Even with exceptional training in analytical thinking, we still have to overcome instincts to think simplistically and nonanalytically. In this lesson, students explore some of the irrational ways in which humans think, and learn to recognize and overcome the habits of mind that can get in the way of good reasoning. Here we focus on the ways that people define themselves and others — how we develop our personal and group identities, how we treat people whose identities are similar or different, and how this affects our perceptions and our ability to reason.

Everything You Know Is Wrong 2: Beliefs and Behavior

Good reasoning doesn’t come naturally. In fact, humans are instinctively terrible reasoners — most of the time, the way our brains work isn’t rational at all. Even with exceptional training in reasoning skills, we still have to overcome instincts to think simplistically and non-analytically. This is the second of two lessons focusing on the instincts and habits of mind that keep us from thinking logically. In the first one, we looked at how people define themselves, alone and in groups, and how this affects behavior. This time around, we will focus on how people reconcile their beliefs with the world around them, even when the evidence doesn’t seem to agree with those beliefs.

Monty Python and the Quest for the Perfect Fallacy

If you weigh the same as a duck, then, logically, you’re made of wood and must be a witch. Or so goes the reasoning of Monty Python’s Sir Bedevere. Obviously, something has gone wrong with the knight’s reasoning – and by the end of this lesson, you’ll know exactly what that is. This lesson will focus on 10 fallacies that represent the most common types of mistakes in reasoning.

Oil Exaggerations

Ever notice how political speeches and ads always mention “the worst,” “the best,” “the largest,” “the most”? It’s effective to use superlatives, but it isn’t always accurate. For instance, President Barack Obama has said that “we import more oil today than ever before” – but do we? How can you find out? What do the numbers really mean? And why would he say it if it wasn’t true? In this lesson, students will weigh Obama’s superlative claim against the facts.

The Credibility Challenge

The Internet can be a rich and valuable source of information – and an even richer source of misinformation. Sorting out the valuable claims from the worthless ones is tricky, since at first glance a Web site written by an expert can look a lot like one written by your next-door neighbor. This lesson offers students background and practice in determining authority on the Internet – how to tell whether an author has expertise or not, and whether you’re getting the straight story.

Peta Pressure

Persuading an audience requires intensive research and scrupulous fact-checking – or, you could just figure out what your audience wants to hear and tell them that. Politicians, advertisers and others with something to sell choose words and images that will appeal to their target audience, enticing them to accept claims unquestioningly. Some of these manipulators, like the animal activism site peta2.com, focus their attentions on teenagers and young adults. In this lesson, students won’t check peta2’s factual accuracy, but will learn to spot their manipulative tactics and why they should be skeptical about them.

The Battle of the Experts

When we hear a piece of information that surprises us, we often react by saying, “Where’d you hear that?” It’s a good question, and one we should ask more often, because some sources are better – sometimes much better – than others. In this lesson, students will learn to distinguish between credible and not-so-credible types of sources. They’ll explore the biases of different sources and develop tools for detecting bias. In their effort to get to facts that are as objective as possible, students will examine the differences between primary and secondary sources, check the track records of different sources, and practice looking for broad consensus from a range of disinterested experts.

U.S. Generals…Support the Draft

Being drafted hasn’t been much of a concern for anyone born on this side of the Age of Aquarius. But rumors of the return of the draft abound. Those rumors are especially scary when they seem to originate from U.S. military commanders. This lesson examines an anti-war advertisement sponsored by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq asserting that military officials plan to continue the war in Iraq for an additional 10 years and that that plan will require reinstating the draft. Students will examine whether quotations from Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute really do support AAEI’s claims.

Pump It

In the good old days, back in January 2007, gas cost just $2.20 per gallon. Your parents might even remember those four months in 1998–1999 when it dropped below $1 per gallon. And your grandparents can likely tell you stories about filling the tank for $5 — or about the cost per gallon in some parts of the U.S. in July 2008. That’s when presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain ran an ad promoting his plan for bringing down the cost of gas. According to McCain, gas prices were high because some politicians still opposed lifting a ban on offshore oil drilling. But McCain’s ad left out some basic facts about offshore drilling. In this lesson, students will examine the facts behind McCain’s false connections.
This lesson comes in a basic version, for classrooms without internet access and/or students at the 8th-9th grade level, and a more advanced version, which does require internet access and is aimed at students at higher grade levels.

Olly Olly Oxen Free

You find the perfect hiding spot and you wait, hoping to hear that magical sound, to hear whoever is “it” call out in frustration, “Olly Olly Oxen Free!” You know that you’re safe, that your hiding spot – your sanctuary – can be used again the next time you play. But in debates about people who are in the U.S. illegally, the concept of sanctuary is considerably more controversial. In fact, some argue that providing sanctuary to people who are in the country illegally is decidedly wrong. This lesson focuses on an argument between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani over New York’s alleged status as a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants. Students will explore the meaning of the term “sanctuary city” and determine for themselves whether New York City ought to be designated a sanctuary city.

Made in the U.S.A.

It seems as if fewer and fewer things bear that label anymore. In 2007, Toyota outsold two of Detroit’s big three automakers. Our televisions and DVD players are mostly made elsewhere. And Walmart imports about 50,000 pounds of merchandise every 45 seconds. As if that’s not bad enough, American companies are shipping many jobs overseas. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards wanted to stop U.S. companies from moving jobs offshore, and a group called Working 4 Working Americans ran an ad in support of his plan. But the story the ad tells doesn’t quite give the whole picture. In this lesson, students will examine the facts behind this potentially misleading ad.
This lesson comes in a basic version, for classrooms without internet access and/or students at the 8th-9th grade level, and a more advanced version, which does require internet access and is aimed at students at higher grade levels.

Health Care Hooey

“Candidate X will raise your taxes!” “Candidate Y will take away your health care!”
In the hotly contested 2008 presidential election, one ad from Democrat Barack Obama created the perfect storm of election themes, accusing Republican John McCain of planning to increase taxes on your health care. But the ad used outdated sources to justify its claims. In this lesson, students will draw on independent experts to determine the accuracy of Sen. Obama’s charge.
This lesson comes in a basic version, for classrooms without internet access and/or students at the 8th-9th grade level, and a more advanced version, which does require internet access and is aimed at students at higher grade levels.

Combating the Culture of Corruption

It’s a classic American film: the young, idealistic new senator, Jefferson Smith, heads off to Washington where he finds that his boyhood hero, Sen. Joseph Paine, is accepting bribes. Worse still, Mr. Smith finds that none of the other senators really care all that much. In Hollywood, the solution is simple: Jimmy Stewart saves the day. Fast forward 60 years: The corruption is still around, and in a fundraising e-mail, the Democratic National Committee claims that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain is more Joseph Paine than Jefferson Smith. That charge has little basis in reality. In this lesson students will dig into a bribery scandal to assess John McCain’s real role in rooting out the culture of corruption.