Product Review of Thinkalong
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 learner 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 educator 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 learners to recognize perspective, bias, motive, and message and to identify key ideas and information. This work culminates in the final Debate section, where learners submit a pro and con argument to the initial question. After they’re done, they can download a PDF of their responses.
Thinkalong’s content is designed for middle school learners, but it can also be adapted, or might even be better suited, for older learners. To get started, educators might choose one topic that the whole class will tackle as a starting point. The site offers a educator guide as well as a clear framework in the lessons themselves for the class to follow. Educators could have the class work through the video, audio, and readings together, or have learners 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 learners 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, educators could host a Socratic seminar, class discussion, or debate that gets learners to summarize the key pro and con positions on the topic.
Once learners have gone through a topic as a class, there’s potential to have learners explore topics entirely in small groups, or to use Thinkalong as an individual activity that culminates in an argumentative essay. Ambitious educators could also have learners research topics not covered on Thinkalong, curating news sources and creating their own lesson plans.
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 learners 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 educators 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 educators 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 learners struggling to come up with the pro or con side of a particularly topic. Educators might want to curate a few extra trusted and credible sources to give learners a fuller picture.
Overall User Consensus About the App
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 learners.
Curriculum and Instruction
The lessons’ consistent structure builds skills, habits, and attitudes that foster long-term learning. Graphic organizers get learners to use media to build understanding.
The fully resourced lessons, with supporting educator guides, are ready to teach. Learners can listen, watch, and read to gain info. Some aspects of the site can’t be navigated by keyboard.