Critical Thinking with 1920’s Textbooks

Critical thinking is one of my favourtie skills to work on with students. Whether it is examining their own thinking, problem solving, or media literacy. The following activity can be a starting point for a larger media literacy unit or a one time exercise in critical thinking.

The Book of Knowledge is a children’s encyclopedia first published in 1912. This image is one of the books in my collection of the 1921 edition. Below I have included eight short articles from the science section.

The original articles are images take directly from the 1921 edition of the Book of Knowledge.

The edited version have been shortened and include only the information needed for these activities. The writing style of these books is often confusing in a way that obscures the information they are trying to share. My goal with these activities is to provide an oppertunity for students to examine the contents and style of these articles, for that they need to be somewhat approachable. I switch between the original articles and the edited vesion depending on the age and interest of the class.


Life on Mars (Grade 5+)

Read the article “Life on Mars” as a class or in groups. Students then discuss in pairs or groups the following questions:

  • What year do you think this was written? Why?
  • What kind of writing do you think it is? (Non-fiction, Fiction…) or Why was this written? For what purpose?
  • What questions do you have about this piece of writing?

After students have had a chance to discuss the class can come together and share their answers/thoughts/questions. I usually play a quick higher-lower guessing game with everyone to reveal the year it was written (1921).

This activity is a great start for conversations about how to fact check information, how older sources of information can be outdated, how the language of a written piece can effect how we understand it, and that our understanding of the world is always expanding.

Below is an example of the types of questions students may ask when analyzing this article:

Fact or False? (Grade 6+)

Students read articles, critically examine whether they are telling the truth, and then fact check using multiple sources.


  • Copies of any of the following articles: The Stars/Life on Mars/Hair Loss/Ocean Floor/The Moon.
  • Highlighters (one or two colours)

Print out a copy of each article (either the originals or edited versions) and seperated the class into groups. Each group will need an article and some highlighters. The students read their article and highlight any statements they think are false. The goal of this activity is not for students to know for sure what is true or false, rather for them to highlight things that don’t sound right, make no sense, or aren’t possible. They could also highlight true statements with a second colour.

After they have had time to read, discuss, and highlight their articles each group can begin to research the topic of their article. Groups look for multiple sources that prove/disprove what was written in their article. After researching the class can have a discussion about their thoughts reading the articles and what they found in their research.

I have included a rough answer key below for this activity, as a teacher on call I usually do a shortened version of this activity where we look for sources as a class rather than in groups, and only for one or two of the articles. Because each group may still want to know how accurate they were I share a general overview of the articles and what is true/false.

Scientific Language (Grade 3+)

The article ‘Pencil Lead’ can be used in a few ways to show why we use exact language in scientific writing.

The article ‘Pencil Lead’ was written as a scientific article in this encyclopedia, yet it does not sound scientific when read. When students are learning about scientific language, or clear writing, this article is a great exersice in recognising vague language.

Here is an exerpt from the article:

“These three things, then, are not really different kinds of stuff at all. They are actually all the same stuff, called Carbon, in different forms.”

The information presented is correct. Pencil lead (Graphite), diamonds, and coal dust are all made of carbon. The language used makes the article confusing to read.

This article could be:

  • Read as a class for a discussion on clear writing
  • Students can circle/underline vague language
  • Students could re-write the article using scientific language

Possible extensions:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s