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The Starting Block

How the Starting Block Cultivates Critical Thinking and Understanding
Too often, students begin studying a topic without preparing themselves to do their best thinking. As Socrates famously argues, it is a wise person who knows the shape of his or her ignorance. The emphasis here is on the word shape. Students rarely come to a learning situation without prior thoughts or questions. The Starting Block helps students shape their lack of knowledge about a topic into an active readiness to learn.

The Starting Block encourages critical thinking and understanding in the following ways:

  • Thoughtful question asking. The Starting Block challenges students to articulate questions about a new topic and to go beyond the obvious to seek deep and difficult questions.

  • Making connections to prior knowledge. The Starting Block asks students to review what they already know about a topic. Although straight recall isn't itself critical thinking, the Starting Block encourages students to go beyond recall and construct new understandings by synthesizing previously unconnected information.

  • Identifying Relevance. Too often, students are asked to accept the necessity of studying a topic without identifying for themselves reasons for studying it. The Starting Block encourages students to actively seek reasons why it might be important to study a topic.

  • Inventing learning strategies. Good thinkers are proactive and devise strategies to advance their learning. The Starting Block challenges students to invent, on their own, steps to take to learn more about the topic they are about to study.

When to Use the Starting Block

Use the Starting Block when beginning a new topic or unit.
The most common time to use the Starting Block is when beginning a new topic or unit.

If the topic is something the students already know a little about, you can use the Starting Block as an introductory activity. If the topic is completely new to students, use the starting block after students have had a lesson or two.

Use the Starting Block in the middle of a unit to infuse energy into a topic or unit, or whenever students need a boost.
The Starting Block is a great energizer. For example, suppose you're teaching sixth-grade geometry, and your students have been working on geometry problems for two weeks. Their learning is progressing, but their energy is flagging. "Do we really have to learn more about triangles?" they complain. Play the Starting Block Game at times like this to renew students' curiosity and to generate fresh ideas and questions.

Getting Started

  1. Choose a Starting Block topic. It can be virtually any topic in any subject in any grade.

  2. Schedule a time for students to play the Starting Block game. Typically, teachers use the Starting Block near the beginning of a unit or a topic of study. A game takes about 15 minutes to play.

  3. Have students work in small groups, with 3-5 students in a group. Give each group:
    • a Starting Block game piece, pre-assembled, or to assemble themselves (print game piece)
    • a Response Sheet (print Response Sheet)

  4. Explain the rules of aloud, and either post the rules where students can easily refer to them or give each group a copy of the rules (print Rules).

  5. Remind groups to record their responses on the Response Sheet as they play the game. Collect the sheets when the groups are done. If you wish, provide written or verbal feedback using the Guidelines for Feedback (down or print Guidelines)

  6. See the Where to Go from Here guidelines for suggestions about to build on the Starting Block in future lessons. (download or print Where to Go from Here).

Play the Starting Block


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© Al Andrade, Harvard Project Zero, 1999
The Thinking Classroom is based on the collective research
and ideas of the Cognitive Skills Group, Harvard Project Zero, 1999

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