INTRODUCTION: Three years ago, while teaching GED classes to students in the Welfare-to-Work program, I attended a training led by Pam Blundell, coordinator of adult education and literacy for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. She asserted that critical thinking skills were essential for success on the GED, especially in the math section where many students struggle.
Few educators would be surprised by the idea that helping students develop critical thinking skills is vital to their academic success, whether on the GED or in college. How, though, do you improve these skills? Terenzini, Springer, Pascarella, and Nora (1995) point out that “three kinds of instructor-influenced classroom interactions were consistently and positively related to gains in critical thinking: the extent to which faculty members encouraged, praised, or used student ideas; the amount and cognitive level of student participation in class; and the amount of interaction among the students in a course.” (1)
One critical thinking technique presented in the Oklahoma City training was called the “forced analogy,” and it incorporates all three of these positive influences. Plus, it’s fun. That year, I used the game to help all but one of my students pass the math section of the GED. Now I use it in my college success class, where it continues to be a hit. Forced analogies can be used in any classroom, in any group of learners, in any situation in which there are five or more minutes to spare for strengthening students’ critical thinking. Thus, it’s great as a class starter, an energizer in the middle of class, or a class ender.
- To develop critical and creative thinking skills
- To promote “diving deep” when problem solving
- To increase self-esteem
- To have intellectual fun
- Blackboard and chalk
- Pen and paper for each student
1. Ask a student to name any noun: a person, place, thing, or idea. Write the word on the board (or have them write it on their paper).
2. Ask a second student to name a second noun, any noun at all. Write this word beside the first. For example, at the Oklahoma training, the first two nouns were “marriage” and a “yellow #2 pencil.”
3. Ask students to write down everything they can think of that the two nouns have in common. Encourage them to list at least 12 commonalities. (5-10 minutes)
4. Ask students to share their “forced analogies.” A couple of my favorites at the Oklahoma training were: “Marriage and a yellow #2 pencil both involve a metal band (the one that holds the eraser on and the one that goes on the fingers).” “Both require the number 2.” (You might want to pause here and see if you can come up with some other similarities yourself.)
At first, I had my students write their answers on their own paper and then we’d compare. I noticed, however, that some students would just ignore my request or only write down answers that someone else mentioned. It seemed more productive, and more fun, when we all did them together, out loud, with me writing the responses on the board.
To make the activity more interesting, I asked my students to challenge the group by coming up with pairs of nouns for which the rest of us could not find an analogy. Everyone tried. I’d see them waiting, grinning when I walked in the classroom door; they couldn’t wait to issue a new challenge to the group. We always found more than one analogy, usually several really good ones. The best part was that they were thinking about the analogies on their own time. One woman told us, “I stayed up late coming up with these. I just knew they’d stump everyone, but it didn’t take ya’ll ten seconds!” The group could not be stumped. Is that a great lesson in the value of interdependence, or what?
One time the two nouns were “bridge” and “squirrel.” Invariably, someone would come up with the easy ones: they both contain the letter R; both can be found outdoors, etc. I invited them to dive a little deeper. It got to where, when someone offered a cheap analogy, others would mime a diving motion, telling them to dive deeper. “Dive deeper” also became a familiar cry of encouragement while working math problems. By the way, my favorite analogy for bridge and squirrel was “They can both get run over.”
More often than not, we would end up laughing, learning and having a great time. My students were thinking and having fun, learning to look at everything in life from multiple perspectives.
I am always excited to watch my students, especially the down-in-the-mouth “life’s a bitch and then you die” crowd, sit up a little straighter, feel better about themselves, grow in confidence in their mental abilities, and have fun.
And as for my GED students: All but one of them passed the math section! Nice results when you consider that most of them didn’t even want to be there.
Doing the forced analogies, I learned to trust the process and to trust the students. There is no way to prepare for this game; nobody knows what the two nouns will be ahead of time. There were times when I could not think of anything to tie the two nouns together and would almost start to panic. The students came through every time. I learned not to rush it; I’d just keep telling them (and myself) not to give up, to keep diving deeper. It worked every single time. More often than not, they amazed me. I loved it when they would tell me I needed to dive deeper. One day the two nouns were Georgia (the state) and liquid paper. I was drawing a big blank; I actually started to sweat. When we would get stuck, we would just start naming everything that popped into our heads about one of the nouns and then try to tie it to the other one. I noticed that Kim was reading the label on a bottle of liquid paper. Suddenly she came halfway out of her chair and shouted, “They’re both flammable!” I asked her to elaborate, and she said that she was thinking about Sherman’s march to the sea during the Civil War. Perhaps it was this intellectual persistence that helped them solve their math problems on the GED. They just wouldn’t quit when the thinking got tough.
Now I am teaching Skills for Success (a class required for all of our students on academic probation) and a section of College Life & Success, both with the On Course text. I continue to use the forced analogy game. It’s a powerful way to exercise our brains and get everyone focused on learning. I have never seen it miss. In fact, I challenge you to come up with two nouns for which we cannot find something in common.
Doing these creative analogies gave me a new respect and appreciation for my students. They were not where they were because they were stupid. They were where they were for any number of reasons, most of which are related to one or more of the On Course Principles (Self-Responsibility, Self-Motivation, Self-Management, Interdependence, Self-Awareness, Lifelong Learning, Emotional Intelligence, Believing in Yourself). It was important for the students to know that. I realized it was also important for me to know that. I didn’t think I was the type to prejudge anyone, but I was doing just that in some cases. Forced analogies leveled the playing field and allowed us to relate as peers. My master’s degree didn’t help me and their lack of a GED didn’t hurt them when we got together as friends and played a learning game. For all our differences, we have far more in common than not.
(1) Terenzine, P.T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E.T., & Amaury, N. (1995). “Influences Affecting the Development of Students’ Critical Thinking Skills.” Research in Higher Education 36: 23-39.
–Tom Hale, Counselor, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, OK