Website review by James Denby, Common Sense Education | Updated August 2021

Thinkalong

Civics site offers a PBS-guided approach to thoughtful debate

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Grades
7–12
Subjects & Skills
English Language Arts, Social Studies

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Pros: Evidence-based discussion of issues. Great scaffolding. Multi-modal learning.

Cons: Some big topics are missing. Some debates feel one-sided. Reading level is high.

Bottom Line: This is a powerful framework for building critical media literacy, but teachers might need to bring in some extra perspectives.

Thinkalong's content is designed for middle school students, but it can also be adapted, or might even be better suited, for older students. To get started, teachers might choose one topic that the whole class will tackle as a starting point. The site offers a teacher guide as well as a clear framework in the lessons themselves for the class to follow. Teachers could have the class work through the video, audio, and readings together, or have students split into pairs or groups and work through them (taking notes in their graphic organizer as they go). The Think Deeper section offers a collection of sources students might do at home and then share their findings on a class website. The Contemplate questions offer a good platform for more paired or grouped activities or whole-class discussion. At the end of the lesson, teachers could host a Socratic seminar, class discussion, or debate that gets students to summarize the key pro and con positions on the topic.

Once students have gone through a topic as a class, there's potential to have students explore topics entirely in small groups, or to use Thinkalong as an individual activity that culminates in an argumentative essay. Ambitious teachers could also have students research topics not covered on Thinkalong, curating news sources and creating their own lesson plans. 

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Thinkalong is a website for exploring political debates developed by Connecticut Public, the parent of Connecticut's public media broadcaster. All of Thinkalong's core content is curated from PBS, NPR, and Connecticut Public. This content -- all news stories -- ranges from text to audio to video and anchors student explorations of current societal issues. Lessons (or Topics) all follow the same structure -- Investigate, Contemplate, Debate -- and begin with a key question (e.g., "Should governments provide universal basic income?"). Lessons are accompanied by a detailed teacher guide, a graphic organizer for collecting information (called Investigate), and a framework developed with the Center for Media Literacy for analyzing information sources (labeled Contemplate). Each lesson also features news articles for research (broken into three modalities: Listen, Read, and Watch) as well as additional resources to Think Deeper about the topic. The Contemplate section features questions that push students to recognize perspective, bias, motive, and message and to identify key ideas and information. This work culminates in the final Debate section, where students submit a pro and con argument to the initial question. After they're done, they can download a PDF of their responses.

Thinkalong is a site with tremendous potential, but it might need some tweaking for different classroom scenarios. What Thinkalong does well: It curates high-quality audio, video, and text-based news stories around a big question that flexibly gets all students on the same page. In general, the site also does a good job of offering different, fair perspectives on debates. All of this is then structured in a consistent framework for building media literacy backed by solid graphic organizers that provide step-by-step learning of processing, analysis, and social and emotional skills. It'd be easy for teachers to take this framework and translate it beyond Thinkalong, which is great. This might be necessary, too, because while there are 50+ topics available, Thinkalong has tons of content but stays away from a few of the biggest, most polarizing issues of the day.

There are a few concerns that teachers will need to be mindful of and work around. First, the reading level of the site and materials is often far above the target of middle school learners. Thankfully, there's tons of audio and video, but the texts can be challenging. Second, some of the topics don't adequately develop or present both sides of some issues. This could leave students struggling to come up with the pro or con side of a particularly topic. Teachers might want to curate a few extra trusted and credible sources to give students a fuller picture.

Overall Rating

Engagement

The topics are well suited to adolescents and feature a range of top-quality media. The design is clean and easy to navigate. Some topics might seem biased to students.

Pedagogy

The lessons' consistent structure builds skills, habits, and attitudes that foster long-term learning. Graphic organizers get students to use media to build understanding.

Support

The fully resourced lessons, with supporting teacher guides, are ready to teach. Students can listen, watch, and read to gain info. Some aspects of the site can't be navigated by keyboard.


Common Sense reviewer
James Denby Educator/Curriculum Developer

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Matthew Z. ,
Great Experience/Idea
The overall opinion of the website is that it is an awesome way to teach a topic with a neutral perspective. Oftentimes as teachers, it is hard to keep our own opinions out of our classrooms. However, this website aims to eliminate that problem found within the classroom. The site then gives substantial information through multiple perspectives on the topic the student would further research. Through this experience, students gain better cultural awareness because it gives access to current problems ou ...
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