Cultivating Critical Thinking in Difficult Discussion: Tools and Techniques


In this line of work, we talk a lot about engaging across difference and having difficult conversations. Since the divisive presidential election, we’ve heard from colleagues that this is more imperative than ever, and the stakes are high. These conversations are made more complex by considerations of trigger warnings, academic freedom, and questions of what constitutes hate speech. In the midst of all of this, we’re also hearing from some of you that students and communities are eager to move to action. Many of us are left with more questions than answers: How do we connect listening and action? How do we ensure that our conversations create space for everyone, and also push students to consider new perspectives, explore their assumptions, and gather evidence to inform their action? How do we integrate critical thinking into reflective dialogue?

In an effort to address these questions, our staff is reaching beyond the field of community engagement for new tools and resources. Below, we’ve sampled a few activities from the work of Stephen Brookfield, University of St. Thomas Professor of Leadership, Policy, and Administration, specifically from Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question their Assumptions (2012). Brookfield teaches and writes on critical thinking, critical theory, and discussion methods. He frames critical thinking as a social learning process where participants are key to one another’s’ learning, which is aligned with the way many community engagement professionals and scholars approach teaching. His collaborative methods engage students in understanding a situation from as many perspectives as possible, identifying the assumptions at work, checking those assumptions by gathering information, and taking informed action.

Brookfield notes that critical thinking, as he understands it, is “particularly important when skills or knowledge have to be applied to the real world,” (p. 80), and many of his strategies could be adapted as reflection techniques for community-based learners, students engaged in social change work, and those eager to make sense of the world. Many of these exercises appear similar to other discussion models often used in our field but with some interesting twists that emphasize shared power, reflective silence, active listening, and finding connections.

Here are a few discussion exercises that may be useful to our Campus Compact network colleagues:

  • Scenario Analysis

Brookfield recommends this approach for beginners, because it requires less vulnerability from participants than analyzing their own situations and decisions. The instructor creates a scenario for discussion, places students in small groups, and asks groups to identify 1) the assumptions the scenario’s main character operates under, 2) the ways the character could check those assumptions by gathering information, and 3) different ways of interpreting the scenario using different assumptions. (p. 86-89)

  • Circle of Voices

This model allows everyone to contribute and supports active listening. The instructor forms groups of five and provides a question for discussion. Groups are given three minutes for silent reflection. Then, going around the circle, each person may speak uninterrupted for up to one minute. Finally, open discussion is allowed with the following ground rule: “Participants are only allowed to talk about another person’s ideas that have already been shared” in the opening circle. (Students can ask clarifying questions.) (p. 183-4)

  • Circular Response

This technique originally comes from community organizing and adult education. It is ideal for groups of 8-12. There are two rounds of conversation. The first speaker has up to a minute, uninterrupted, to discuss an issue or question. Moving around the circle, the second speaker “must incorporate into her remarks some reference to the preceding speaker’s comments and then use this as a springboard for her own contribution,” including agreeing, disagreeing, or drawing some other connection. Each subsequent speaker’s comments must respond to those of the person preceding them. After the first round of conversation, the group moves into free discussion. Allowing for silence is key. One benefit is that participants listen closely to see how their contributions show up in others’. (p. 184-5)

  • Chalk Talk

This was developed by a St. Thomas student, Steven Rippe, in one of Brookfield’s classes. It allows for silent, visual reflection and preparation before a discussion. Begin by writing a question in a circle on the front board, and explain that this is a silent activity. Whenever students are ready, they can come up and write responses to the prompt, write questions to others responses, answer questions, and draw lines connecting various notes. There may be pauses and silences between contributions and the exercise usually runs for about 10 minutes. This exercise elicits many ideas and perspectives in a short period of time and prevents just a few students from dominating discussion. (p. 186 –7)

All of these activities would be enhanced by the additional context provided in Brookfield’s book, which is also full of other teaching tools. Additional works include The Power of Critical Theory (2005) and The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking (2016).

If you have other resources to contribute on this or related subjects, please contact Sinda at sinda {at} mncampuscompact(.)org.