A Bag of Tricks: Slow Down and be Recursive–Thinking about Thinking and Teaching Inferential Skills (Free Lesson Plan for a Rainy Day!)

Earlier this fall I published a piece on Critical Thinking in Education Week online. In it I argued that “critical thinking” is, for most people (including teachers and administrators) a meaningless term.  It signifies something to be desired (who could be against it!) but when you ask someone what he means by teaching critical thinking you often get tautologies like “I teach kids to reason” or “I get them to think” or “I use the Socratic method.”  (One video describes teaching critical thinking as getting kids to ask questions and another as getting students to define their terms.)
I know exactly the mental operations that I’m hoping to train and so for me, I regard my contribution to teaching critical thinking particularly as the ability to draw correct inferences from assembled data and the ability to recognize patterns.  I have several exercises to help me help students train themselves to practice inferential skills and to recognize patterns. (I also have them do memorization exercises and recognition exercises and application of skills exercises and all sorts of other mental operations but, for me, critical thinking and the altering of intelligence is done through teaching pattern recognition, inferential skills, convergent and divergent production [group things and then split them up], and evaluation.  DON’T TRUST ANY TEACHER WHO CAN’T TELL YOU WHAT MENTAL OPERATIONS THEY ARE WORKING WITH IN ADDITION TO THE ACTUAL MATERIAL THEY ARE COVERING!)
I begin by explaining that the attitude students must bring is one that presupposes meaning to any “text” they are studying (a painting, a man-to-man defense, a “cover-two” with blitz package, the various shrugs and nods of a pitcher accepting and declining signs, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas,  Huck Finn, or The Simpsons–all the world’s a text!) This is not as obvious as it seems–many students approach texts assuming that there is NO meaning and so CANNOT find one (or cannot create one–creating meaning [as oppposed to finding it] is not so bad as it might seem and by the time we get to existentialism we can do quite a bit with this idea)–but back to finding and creating meaning.  When I teach lyric poetry–often daunting–we begin with puzzle poems, we search for patterns (I often use brain-teasers and puzzles in class anyway as warm-ups because puzzles and brain teasers self-evidently have solutions).  I’d much rather have a student who finds patterns that don’t exist than students who find no patterns–the first kind of student is on the right path; the second does not know there is a path.
In any event, here is a cool (usually) two-day exercise that helps students watch their own thinking and to reflect on various mental processes (not just inferential skills but definitional skills, descriptive skills, etc.).
Take a bag (book bag, shopping bag, pledge drive bag–it doesn’t matter–I use one with a Greenpeace logo) and then fill it with stuff from around your house of office or engage your friends to contribute random things–stuff like Visine, aspirin bottle, gardening gloves, kids toys, scraps of paper, from your car floor, a novel, tools, a magazine or catalogue, some business cards from people they won’t know, graph paper, pencils, random keys, incense sticks–raid your junk drawer for literally anything).  Depending on the class level and time allotted I might pick anywhere from 20 to 70 items.  Tell the students you are going to play a game and the game is that you found the bag in the parking lot and they are going to take things out and as they do so they’ll have to describe each article and then eventually they will construct the person to whom the bag belongs.  We keep a list on the board and each student keeps a list of all the stuff. I have the students get up, pick the objects, move around the room, pass the objects around (I wouldn’t bring breakables).
It helps if you pick a couple of objects which require some specialized knowledge–I use an architect’s scale which most students identify as a ruler–but usually someone knows it’s not and will correct that (it might make a difference if graph paper is another item or an architectural magazine or home design magazine is in the bag).  After everything is out then start making groups–things that pertain to health: Visine, aspirin, cough drops; things to be read: magazine, book (but what if the magazine has an article about health in it?!); children’s toys or objects: a sippy cup, a tennis ball (or is that for a dog?), a refrigerator magnet letter. And on an on–make categories with them or let them gloriously create their own with little help. Does the bag count as an artifact?  (If students know what Greenpeace is does that cause them to begin to draw conclusions about the person?) Does the fact that it locks or doesn’t lock mean something–could passersby have already taken key things out–could some of the trash in it have been put in?  Does a crumpled advertising flier mean “anger” or did the recipient just get two of them? Do objects have gender? (pulling a gardening magazine early in process often causes people to start using “she” for the owner; try pulling a pair of pliers [or are those more specifically “channel locks”] or a screw driver [Phillips-head, flat-head, square head?] and watch the gender become male). A great deal of the fun comes from grouping and re-grouping and watching students develop and see relationships that delight and instruct me. I occasionally bring a visual encyclopedia to help them–I use What’s What: A Visual Glossary of the Physical World (also a favorite of novelist George Pelecanos) published by Hammond, but there are other good ones.  It helps you see the world more clearly, know the correct terms for things, and it makes you more exact.
To finish I have them try to construct a plausible story for the person that incorporates as many artifacts as possible.  (I always grab random stuff from my house and a have a friend bring in junk so it is a process of discovery for me, too–my kids love this assignment.) 
Often, one thing we learn (in addition to my ability to assess their strengths at pattern making, convergent production, drawing inferences, etc) is the all-too-human characteristic of suppressing evidence that does not fit their “person”–it’s amazing to watch what doesn’t fit the character they create get left out of the discussion.
A common assignment if I choose to move from the class or small group level to the individual level is to ask for an essay in which the student constructs a story that tries to incorporate the disparate elements of the bag into a coherent whole.  (I have done this exercise to help introduce inferential reasoning to a statistics class and it can be done in a world languages class with an emphasis on creating “work-arounds” for not knowing the specific vocabulary to name an object–instead you have to describe it with words you do know.)  I cribbed the embryo of this exercise form an archeology text-book where the professor would “seed” the trash can for the first day of class and then dump the can on the desk and have the class try to construct the society based on the things it throws away.
I think next week I am writing about the obligations of teachers and students and then at least one entry on Japanese literature and culture.


Filed under books and learning, critical thinking, inferential skills, pedagogy, teaching, Uncategorized

11 responses to “A Bag of Tricks: Slow Down and be Recursive–Thinking about Thinking and Teaching Inferential Skills (Free Lesson Plan for a Rainy Day!)

  1. John McGean

    Can I be in your class . . . PLEASE!

    So, how about teaching to draw multiple (italicized) inferences from patterns–and hold them side by side? Do-able? Desirable?

    Dan, have you come across the slender volume “Teaching What Matters Most,” an ASCD publication by Silver, Strong & Perini? They offer some interesting ideas about teaching a set of four standards–standards of rigor, thought, diversity, and authenticity. Their discussion of thought is a good side piece, I think, to your fine discussion of inference.

    You are amazing.


  2. Hi John! I hope you and Mindy had a great trip–I loved the photos. Thanks for the too-generous comments. I don’t know the book you named but I will track it down now. I am in complete agreement with you that you want to teach students to draw multiple inferences from patterns (and to hold competing ones in their minds) and then work through some sort of evaluation (in which you acknowledge your own values/biases/predilictions) and try to achieve the most fair and comprehensive reading that you can.

  3. The “invisible Man Paradigm” McGean? Interesting that the IM model does a similar type of categorization. I’m thinking that this thinking process comes up informally in many classrooms as students use clues to distinguish character and motivation, In most cases the character clue will be determined by what the character says or how she/he acts and dresses..Thus in “Hamlet, deference to the King would suggest Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have pretty much defined themselves, as opposed to Horatio who has loyalty to Hamlet.

    • Joe, indeed that comment is from the very same John McGean of the “McGean model” of reading Invisible Man (the second best reading of the novel!). You are right of course that the thinking process described here occurs informally in many classes. My goal in this piece is to make such work explicit with the idea that it can be intentionally learned rather than hoping that students stumble on to it. The attention to detail that you cite regarding dress, dialect, action (“deference to the King”), etc., is such an important skill and that attention to detail will reveal important things–but they only do so if you are actively interested in finding out what those things are. This itself is one of the best arguments for teaching (and practicing) close reading. The more elaborate argument as this relates to existentialism (creation of meaning where there may be none) will have to wait for a Spring blog on Invisible Man or perhaps Man’s Search for Meaning or even Fifth Business. I remain your student after all these years.

  4. The child is father to the man. I look forward to your next commentary.

  5. Kholdstare

    What a wonderful activity you’ve described, Dr. It’s very adaptable to nearly any age/grade level. In early-childhood education, one would most certainly start with concrete pattern-recognition like, say, the categorization of the objects in the “Mystery Bag”: by physical traits (for preschoolers) or function (first-second grade), to as many categories as one’s students can conceive, with the role of the teacher being to reinforce ‘relevant’ criteria for grouping . The ability to differentiate is a broad-based cognitive skill and, I believe, a necessary prerequisite to developing more abstract pattern-recognition skills (emotive/behavior-related et al. … social patterns, mostly) necessary for the inferential reasoning skills that we begin to develop by the end of second-grade/start of third-grade and, as you’ve brilliantly illustrated, continue to develop well into adolescence.

    And it’s laughable when I think of how many Master’s in Education students I know who prattle on about how difficult it is to find fun activities that really challenge and develop writing habits and skills when you present us with this wonderful mystery game that actuates a child’s natural inquisitiveness, only to reveal later that it’s actually a writer’s workshop project!




    This reminds me of my GARBOLOGY assignment….I had students read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley p115-119 where he is in a hotel room before it’s gotten cleaned up and considers what the previous guest was like from his “leavings”….then I give groups of 4 a bag with assorted stuff that I’ve accumulated from my own 4 teenagers….that would be clues to their lives….I add what I think would be interesting other things of course! As a group they brainstorm possibilities for each item then go off to write their own version of Steinbeck’s character portrait….wonderful results!

  7. Hi Mary Kim, I can’t remember if I said where I got this but I read about an archeologist who would “seed” the trash can of his classroom before the first day (and also just take whatever was there) and then invite the students up, dump the trashcan out and construct the society that existed from its garbage. I merely modified the elements. I love the use of Steinbeck to do this. One of the things I like about bringing in the stuff yourself is the tactile nature of the project–to handle and heft each thing, to turn it over and look closely at it for wear and use. Thanks again.


    Have you ever used EINSTEIN’S DREAMS (Alan Lightman) with a class? It is so fascinating and begs to be wrapped up in an interesting lesson…I’ve used one or two of the segments but never the whole….

    • Hi Mary Kim, I have never used Einstein’s Dreams in class though I admire it and find it charming. I guess I haven’t figured out how to work it into the tapestry of things I am doing. My usual teaching load (World Literature, lyric poetry) doesn’t obviously have a place for Lightman’s work but I really should think about ways I might be able to use it. Thanks for the idea.

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