Lesson Plans

Using Collaborative Reasoning to Support Critical Thinking

3 - 5
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute Sessions
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Designed as a starting point to build trust and respect, as well as to encourage and support conversations that evoke emotion and change, this lesson will invite students to participate in small group Collaborative Reasoning about issues of social justice and diversity. Students will read articles and answer questions that spur them to think critically about issues and discuss with others, using evidence and experiences to support their personal beliefs. Each group will create an online Persuasion Map to share whole class.

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From Theory to Practice

Zhang & Doughtery Stahl (2011) state that “Collaborative Reasoning (CR) effectively provides a forum for extended meaningful communication and promotes language development and thinking skills of all students” (257). Collaborative Reasoning is peer-led with students managing their own discussions and having control over what they say within small groups, which increases personal engagement. The purpose of using this model is for students to “cooperatively search for resolutions and develop thoughtful opinions about the topic” (257). Collaborative Reasoning works well with all kinds of students, no matter their gender, race, socioeconomic status, or other domains of diversity.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Five Smithsonian TweenTribune Junior articles (to be displayed on computers and/or tablets or printed out as class sets of each article)
  • Computer and/or tablets with Internet access
  • Small sheets of papers that list the title of each article chosen (one per student)
  • Sticky notes
  • Writing utensils
  • SmartBoard or other means of projection
  • Ten anchor chart papers and markers (for co-created guidelines, co-created conversational moves, each of the five article titles and some extra on hand in case some groups need to divide)
  • Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman



This free website by Smithsonian offers current events articles on various topics and complexity levels for students K-12, with specific areas titled TweenTribune Junior for elementary students.  Each article contains text, photos, and a critical thinking challenge question for students to reflect on and respond to. These questions vary based on the articles chosen for the lesson.  For example, an article on the site titled “Life is sweet, but we’re eating too much sugar” and the critical thinking challenge question is "What may make it difficult for the world to cut down on sugar?"


  1. Title two anchor chart papers: one with “Guidelines” and the other with “Conversational Moves.”  Consult the Sample Collaborative Reasoning Participation Guidelines and Conversational Moves handout and consider how to facilitate the co-construction of charts.
  2. Locate a copy of Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman.  Use the Sample Think-Aloud Statements and Questions for Amazing Grace to prepare for the think-aloud and discussion.
  3. Explore the Smithsonian TweenTribune Junior website and choose five articles that your students would be interested in based on your knowledge of them and the community.
  4. Make class set copies of every article set up enough computers and/or tablets so students can read the article online.
  5. Display the anchor charts for the guidelines and conversational moves in a place that students will be able to access it easily throughout this lesson.
  6. Write the title of each article on a separate anchor chart. Place these around the room to give adequate space for each group discussion time.
  7. Gather several sticky notes and place in designated article areas.
  8. Have enough computers and/or tablets set up in the room for each group. Log onto the Persuasion Map Student Interactive and familiarize yourself with the tool.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • respond individually and reflect critically to an article with a social justice theme.
  • use the Collaborative Reasoning model to discuss in small groups.
  • develop and consolidate group opinions using an online tool.
  • present opinions in a whole group setting.

Session One

  1. Explain the Collaborative Reasoning process and purpose to the students. Begin by explaining that "collaborative" means something accomplished with other people, and that "reasoning" refers to thinking through a difficult problem or question.  They will be asked to read a text and are then posed with a critical thinking question about what they believe and why, using both evidence and experience to support beliefs. Students then participate in discussions with a group, both sharing their beliefs and actively listening to others. This helps in building a classroom community of trust and respect, as well as opportunities for students to discuss diversities and inequalities with each other to make a change.


  2. Co-create guidelines for participation with your students on anchor chart paper. Model a couple of guidelines to get started. Some suggestions include
    • staying on topic
    • respecting other beliefs and viewpoints through not interrupting or arguing
    • making an effort to look at both sides of the issue (for and against)
    • giving all members of the group opportunities to participate and share
  3. Open the discussion up to the students. Help prompt students by asking a question such as “When you are having a conversation with one of your peers, what is important to you?”
  4. Create together a list of conversational moves, phrases that the students can refer to if they need support in responding to a member of their group or for delving deeper in the conversation. These can include, but are not limited to

    • “I agree/disagree with you because…”
    • “I can connect to… because…”
    • “I was confused when…”
    • “I wonder why…”
    • “I would like to add that…”
  5. Read Amazing Grace aloud, modeling using a think-aloud strategy with your reactions and feelings to the text and illustrations for the first half of the book. Some ideas for thinking to share include

    • I bet that was fun to watch Grace act out all of those stories!
    • She is so creative!
    • That’s too bad that Mom and Nana don’t want to act out with her.
    • I wonder how that made Grace feel with her classmates said she couldn’t be Peter Pan because she was a girl and she was black.
  6. As you continue to read the rest of the story, open the discussion up to the students, reminding them of the guidelines and conversational moves that were created together. This is a time to start building an environment of trust and respect so students will begin feeling comfortable to share aloud. If students need some prompting, some sample questions include

    • How would that make you feel if your classmates told you that you couldn’t do something that you wanted to do?
    • Why do you think her Nana is taking her to that play?
    • Do you believe that Grace can be anyone she wants to be?
    • What do you think changed her classmates’ minds?
  7. When finished, give the students time to think silently about their reactions and feelings.

  8. Have the students turn and talk with a partner, referring to the guidelines and conversational moves for support.

  9. Have students share with the full class their thoughts about the text.

Session Two

  1. Explain to the students that in this session they will be continue their practice with the Collaborative Reasoning model centering around five different articles and a critical thinking challenge question that encourages them to think more deeply about a particular social justice or diversity topic.

  2. Display the five titles of the articles that you have chosen from TweenTribune Junior on the SmartBoard.

  3. Pass out the small papers to the students and have them spend a couple of minutes deciding which article title they feel most passionate about and/or interested in.

  4. Once all of the students have circled an article title, explain the process, writing some key instructions on an anchor chart for students to refer to while they collaborate:

    • When they form their groups, students will read the article individually (either with paper copies or on a computer/tablet), reflect on the critical thinking challenge question at the bottom of the article.
    • Then they should use sticky notes to record their thinking, remembering to try to use evidence from the article and their own experiences to support. While students fill out their sticky notes, they can place them on the anchor charts at their set location in the room.
    • When all group members have had enough time to each read and reflect, they may begin discussing the article, the critical thinking question, and their beliefs with evidence and experience to support, with their group members. They may create new sticky notes during this time as well.
  5. Point out the different article areas in the room and direct the students to travel to the article they chose. Since the students are self-selecting, there may be uneven numbers of students within a group. If many (say, more than 5) students choose the same article, divide the students into multiple groups. If there is only one student that chose an article, discuss with the student that since he or she had passion for the article, he or she can still have a copy, read it, and talk about it with you later.
  6. During this time, walk from group to group to listen in on the conversations that the groups are having with each other. Notice if they are sharing their experiences and pulling information from the article in as well. Are they using the guidelines and conversational moves to dive deeper in their conversations? Provide support and redirection as necessary.

Session Three

  1. Explain to the students that in this session they will be using their discussions and sticky notes from the previous session to map out their ideas in a fun, interactive way. They will informally present these maps to their classmates.
  2. Display the Persuasion Map on the SmartBoard or other projector. Model how to complete the map by typing in the parts (thesis, reasons, examples for each reason, and conclusion) based on the text Amazing Grace that the class read in Session One. Encourage students to help fill the map out based on what was shared during that time or any new ideas that have come to their minds. The beginning of the map may look like this:

  3. Title: Amazing Grace
    Goal or Thesis: Grace can be Peter Pan in the play if she wants to.
    Reason: Grace has many experiences with acting.
    Example: Her mom and nana tell stories and she acts out the parts, no matter who or what the characters are. She was a spider in one story.
  4. Return students to their discussion groups from the previous session by the anchor chart with their sticky notes.
  5. Each group should then begin creating their Persuasion Map. It is possible that students within the same group will have differing ideas for the thesis. Consider having extra computers for students to complete one for each side simultaneously, or when students complete one persuasion map, they can create another.

  6. Students should save their work at the end of the session.

Session Four

  1. Allow each group to group to take turns sharing a summary of their article, critical thinking question, and their Persuasion Map with the whole class on the SmartBoard or other projector.
  2. The members of the group can encourage other students in the class to interact with their Persuasion Map as well with their own thoughts and beliefs on the topic.


  • This same Collaborative Reasoning model can be used with other texts such as picture books, other articles, or students’ choices of what is happening in their own lives, the community, or the world.
  • After hearing other groups' presentations, invite students to read one or more of the other articles and share how their thinking is similar to or different from their classmates.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Students will be informally assessed through walking around and observing students while they are in their Collaborative Reasoning groups, as well as with the students’ sticky notes on the anchor charts and their Persuasion Map.
  • Using a paper and clipboard or other recording device, jot down comments and questions to help inform future instruction with this model, keeping in mind questions such as
    • Were these article topics appropriate for these students?
    • Did the students display interest and passion through their discussions?
    • Were there other topics or issues that would lead to other discussions?
    • Were students able to each have a voice and share their beliefs about the topic?
    • Were students able to balance their belief support through both evidence and experience?

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