Believing and Doubting for Critical Thinking

Teaching Empathy With a Simple Game

Difficult characters like Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, can provide a learning opportunity for students, especially with the help of the “believing and doubting” game. In his book, Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow introduces the game as a technique for teaching students to fully understand an idea, explaining that "the truth is often complex and… different people often catch different aspects of it." In order to grasp these multi-faceted truths, Elbow recommends having students play the believing and doubting game. I believe that in order to instill empathy, compassion, and understanding in my students, it is essential for them to grasp a variety of concepts and beliefs that differ from what they have experienced in their own lives.


To start the game, students must fully embrace an idea, defending it as much as they can. Students are encouraged to put themselves in different shoes to empathize with different viewpoints and inquire more information about the argument at hand.

Our best hope for finding invisible flaws in what we can't see in our own thinking is to enter into different ways of thinking or points of view--points of view that carry different assumptions.

For example, if the believing and doubting game were to be played in a literature class, the believing portion may mean students using a main character’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities as a way of explaining and defending his/her actions.


After that, students break down the idea, doubting and questioning every argument or piece of evidence they found. Students are asked to question the idea they had just believed in—being skeptical allows them to analyze the validity of the argument and the evidence.

Going back to our literature example, in the doubting portion of the game, students are responsible for discovering flaws in both their own and opposing ideas in order to fully dissect the arguments.

To take it a step further, teachers can ask students questions that target different angles of their arguments. This helps students to ensure clarity, meaning and full perception in their argument. This kind of exercise is what we traditionally view as critical thinking—asking probing questions, taking apart an argument, and looking for the flaws.

Teachers who utilize the believing and doubting game in their classrooms give students a way to become more inquisitive and open-minded. By challenging your students to participate in this game, you may be surprised to see the various ways they can grow:

Critical Thinking

With the believing and doubting game, a student’s critical thinking skills are fully tested. They become more adept at understanding the complexity of different issues and arguments. The process of the game allows them to become better writers and establish a greater understanding of any text they are reading.


This technique provides students with the opportunity to be flexible in their thought process and writing. Classroom discussions can quickly turn sour with strong disagreements and personal bias. Students have the chance to hold their own initial sentiments about the argument and grasp new perceptions and beliefs in their critical thinking process. Students will also feel more comfortable analyzing scenarios and situations outside of the classroom.

Understanding Unfamiliar Ideas and Beliefs

What’s great about this technique is that it can be used to help students understand a complicated or controversial idea—from why Trump gained so much popularity with voters to why Brexit passed the vote to why Othello ends up killing his wife. The believing and doubting game can be used to delve into any issue or question that has more than one side.

Ultimately, students will realize that there really are no right answers. They have to figure out what they believe by fully analyzing and thinking through the evidence, but they have to develop their own opinions and beliefs through this critical analysis. If we want students to become independent thinkers, they must both believe and doubt.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.