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Critical Thinking Activity: Building a Skept-o-Meter

For this Friday’s activity you are going to build a little scale for weighing evidence. I call it a “skept-o-meter.”

One of the key concepts in critical thinking is understanding what evidence is and how to evaluate it. Once a kid gets the idea that evidence can be “for” or “against” a claim, then they can take the next step and “weigh” evidence on an imaginary scale. As grown ups we know how to do this in our imaginations, but children need a concrete activity to help them kickstart this critical thinking skill. Building a scale and using it to weigh evidence is a perfect way to help a child grasp this concept.

For this you will need to gather the following materials:

  • A paper tube (from a paper roll)
  • A rectangle of cardboard cut from a box (roughly 10 inches by 3 inches, the cardboard from a cereal box works well for this)
  • Two paper cups and a black marker
  • Four push pins
  • A handful of coins or buttons

Once you have the materials all together explain to your child that you are going to build a skept-o-meter, which is used for weighing evidence. First place the paper tube down on its edge, so that it can roll. Next, rest the center of the rectangle of cardboard on the the paper tube. The idea is for the tube to act as the pivot point of a scale, so you’ll want to center it carefully. Next push two pushpins through the cardboard and the tube so that they stick together. The result should be a little cardboard see-saw. Next, write “evidence for” on one cup and “evidence against” on the other with the black marker. Place a cup on one end of the see-saw and use a push pin to keep it in place. Do the same to the other cup on the other end of the see saw. Place them so that they balance out. You now have your skept-o-meter built and it’s ready to go.

Below are claims and evidence about each claim. There are six paranormal claims and six that are not paranormal. You can choose which claims to use based on what you think will interest your kid. Pick one of the claims and read it aloud. Then read the first bit of evidence. Your child decides whether the evidence makes the claim believable or not and places a coin in either the “for” or “against” cup. If the evidence is not good, it doesn’t have to go on the scale. Once you have gone through all the evidence balance out the skept-o-meter and see which way it falls. Ask: Do you believe the claim or stay skeptical?

Throughout this activity take time to ask your kid open ended questions about their choices. It is helpful if they can identify why they find some evidence good while other bits are not. If you like, you can use different size coins to represent the strength of the evidence. For example, you could use a quarter for a scientific study, but a dime for an anecdotal report.

Paranormal Claims

Claim: The school library is haunted by the ghost of the former librarian

Evidence 1: Jeremy told me he heard spooky noises in the library

Evidence 2: Ms. Booker, the former librarian, is retired and now lives in Costa Rica with her pet monkey.

Evidence 3: If you leave a half eaten sandwich on one of the bookshelves and come back the next day, it will be gone.

Evidence 4: Ms. Booker’s favorite section, Science Fiction, is always a mess, as though she is still looking through it to this day. But the section right next to it, Sonnets A to Z, is always neat and tidy.

Evidence 5: The principal says she saw a light on in the windows of the library late at night after the school was locked up.

Evidence 6: If you ask the librarian about the ghost she always says she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Claim: The lunch lady can read minds.

Evidence 1: She already knows if you don’t want the school lunch

Evidence 2: Cindy Sanders said that she knew what she wanted for lunch even before she said anything

Evidence 3: Her and the other cook show up dressed in the same outfit, as though they read each other’s minds

Evidence 4: If you ask her if she is psychic she just stares blankly at you, as though she’s reading your mind

Evidence 5: One time they were serving my very favorite food and she gave me a double helping without me asking

Evidence 6: She wears a net over her head to keep from hearing everyone’s thoughts

Claim: The wardrobe in Ms. Kapowski’s class is possessed by a poltergeist

Evidence 1: I hung my coat up in there and when I put it back on there was a Pokémon card in the pocket, but I lost that card a week before

Evidence 2: Angie Flanders hung her hat up in there and it disappeared

Evidence 3: Brandon Byers says that he heard laughter coming from the wardrobe when no one was in there

Evidence 4: I saw a bunch of the coats pop right off of the hooks and fall to the ground and no one touched them

Evidence 5: It is always dark in the wardrobe even if it is really bright outside

Evidence 6: When we came back from lunch we found all the backpacks open and emptied onto the floor

Claim: There are elves living in the tree in my yard

Evidence 1: I found a strange hat near the tree. It looked like an elf hat

Evidence 2: There is a hole at the base of tree which is just the right size for an elf

Evidence 3: When I camp out in the back yard, I hear noises in the tree

Evidence 4: I heard something moving in the branches and when I looked the elf became invisible – like they do

Evidence 5: I was digging around near the tree and found a bunch stuff hidden there including nuts, shiny stuff, and lots of rocks

Evidence 6: At sunset I saw the shadow of an elf moving around in the branches

Claim: My neighbor is a witch

Evidence 1: I once saw her with a green face

Evidence 2: Most of her clothes are black

Evidence 3: My frisbee landed in her yard and when I went over to get it the house seemed creepy

Evidence 4: She dressed up as a witch for Halloween and it looked too real

Evidence 5: She has a black cat that goes with her

Evidence 6: She doesn’t have a car, but there is a broom leaning against the garage door

Claim: See a penny pick it up all day long you’ll have good luck, see a penny let it lay bad luck will follow you throughout the day

Evidence 1: I didn’t pick up a penny and later I fell in the mud

Evidence 2: One time I picked up a penny and that night my mom gave me extra ice cream after dinner

Evidence 3: My dad picked up a penny outside the doughnut shop. When we brought home the box of a dozen doughnuts – there were 13 inside

Evidence 4: When I picked up a penny I found a four leaf clover next to it

Evidence 5: I didn’t pick up a penny and later I found out that my dad ate all the chips and there were none left for me

Evidence 6: I didn’t pick up a penny on the playground and later that day I failed a quiz

Non-paranormal Claims

Claim: George Washington had wooden teeth

Evidence 1: My teacher said it

Evidence 2: I read about it in a book

Evidence 3: Jason Johnson told me it’s true

Evidence 4: I saw a picture of them

Evidence 5: My favorite youtuber talked about them

Evidence 6: George Washington told me in a dream

Claim: You would weigh more on on Jupiter

Evidence 1: I saw a mathematical equation in a book about it

Evidence 2: Jupiter is bigger, so you would weigh more

Evidence 3: Angie Brockman says her family went to Jupiter for the holidays and she weighed more there

Evidence 4: It was in a cartoon I watched

Evidence 5: It was listed as an amazing but true fact in my favorite book

Evidence 6: A scientist explained it to me

Claim: The largest living thing on the planet is a fungus

Evidence 1: There is a scientific article about it

Evidence 2: My dentist told me while she was cleaning my teeth

Evidence 3: I read about it on a blog called Our Bizarre World

Evidence 4: I learned about it in science class

Evidence 5: My best friend told me. She never lies.

Evidence 6: It was in a science documentary from the National Science Foundation

Claim: Learning a second language makes you more creative

Evidence 1: I became more creative after learning a second language

Evidence 2: Our teacher told us

Evidence 3: That is what it said in a commercial for French lessons

Evidence 4: I read about it in a science magazine

Evidence 5: My friend told me he learned that in his class

Evidence 6: A brain study showed that people with a second language are more creative

Claim: There are more neurons in the brain than stars in the galaxy

Evidence 1: I read that but can’t remember where

Evidence 2: A science geek in my class told me

Evidence 3: It says that on a website for a guy who claims he can read minds

Evidence 4: It was said by a character in a movie I like

Evidence 5: My history teacher says she thinks that maybe that’s true

Evidence 6: Of course. Everybody knows that.

Claim: All the cells in your body are replaced every seven years

Evidence 1: It says so in this science book

Evidence 2: I remember hearing that from someone once

Evidence 3: It was stated as a fact in the documentary Nobody Knows Anything

Evidence 4: My cousin believes this and she knows a lot of things about the body

Evidence 5: It says so in this fashion magazine

Evidence 6: My gym teacher told me

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