A Critical Thinking Exercise on Conspiracy Theories

December 26, 2020

Students practice their critical thinking skills by analyzing an image and then articles about conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine myths.

To The Teacher:

Students – and the rest of us – are being bombarded with a stream of disinformation on the web and social media. Even though these false stories are regularly debunked by reporters and fact-checkers, students still bring them into the classroom, as Sarah Schwartz recently noted on Education Week.

How can we help our students develop their skills in sorting fact from fiction?

In this two-part lesson, students practice their critical thinking skills by analyzing first an image using a critical thinking tool called Visual Teaching Strategies or VTS, and then by analyzing text – articles on conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine myths.

VTS is an inquiry-based teaching method created by cognitive psychologist Abigail House and museum educator Philip Yenawine. Yenawine defines VTS as the use of art to teach "visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills."



Preparing for the Lesson

1. Photo

Copy and paste this photo from the Lower Hudson Journal News for in-class use – WITHOUT the caption. If you’re not teaching remotely or using a smartboard, print out and make copies of the picture, without the caption. Link:


The link takes you to a story about rising unemployment rates and increasing food pantry use. A photo of people standing in a food pantry line accompanies the story.

The caption reads: “A large crowd winds around the block for the weekly food pantry distribution held at the YMCA in Yonkers, July 27, 2020. Peter Carr/The Journal News

2. Slide

Prepare one slide for your computer or white board with the following three questions:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What else can WE find?

3.  Article

Have the following LINK to a Time magazine article ready for use in the lesson:



Part 1: Analyzing an Image and Analyzing Text


Analyzing an Image

Project the PHOTO onto your computer or smartboard, or copy and distribute it – without the caption.

Tell students that they have a minute (30 seconds or so) to look at the photo.

Next, ask the three questions above exactly as they are worded. There are no right or wrong answers, rather thoughtful responses from students.

The first question, “What’s going on in this picture?” compels students to stay with the image longer than they may have otherwise and then mentally tell a story or create a list about what’s going on.

After calling on one student, ask that same student the second question: “What do you see that makes you say that?” This question compels the student (and everyone else) to take another look at the image and find evidence to support or refute a claim.

The third question, “What else can we find?” keeps the inquiry going, encourages everyone to dig deeper for meaning and understanding, and creates space for participants to hear multiple viewpoints and interpretations.

NOTE:  Refrain from offering any judgments about students’ responses after they state what “they think” is going on in the picture. It is imperative, though, to summarize each student’s answer to validate their response.

Whether or not you agree with their response to the question, “What’s going on in this picture?” or think it makes sense, summarize their response then ask, “What do you see that makes you say that?” Again, summarize their answer and their reasoning for their claim about what’s going on, without questioning its validity or making any judgments.

Then ask the third question to get other voices and viewpoints and repeat the process, making sure to link students’ responses, e.g. “So, you’re thinking these people are not XYZ like Alex had said earlier because you’re seeing that they ABC.” or “So you agree with some earlier comments that said, XYZ.” Allow about 15 minutes for this portion of the lesson. Close by revealing the caption.

Analyzing Text

Next, students will use these same visual teaching strategies to analyze text. You’ll use the questions below, which are the same questions used before with two slight modifications:

  1. What’s going on in this text?
  2. What do you read that makes you say that?
  3. What else can we find?

Begin by reading the first five paragraphs of the first Time magazine article from August 2019: “Conspiracy Theories Might Sound Crazy, But Here’s Why Experts Say We Can No Longer Ignore Them.” Ask the questions above. Get answers from three or four students. You can let students know they’re only reading the beginning part of the article.

After hearing from about three students, direct students’ attention to the third sentence in the first paragraph. Say to students: “There’s a claim in that sentence that’s not substantiated or proven. The claim is that conspiracy theories are causing a surge in measles cases. The author did provide a hyperlink to substantiate his claim. We’re going to click on the link and read the information to see if it makes sense and if it supports the claim the author is making.”

The link takes us to an article titled Measles Cases Are Increasing Worldwide Amid 'Mistrust and Complacency,' U.N. Warns.

Click on the link, then read the first 10 paragraphs of this article. The 10th paragraph reads:

The report suggests the rise in measles cases is in part attributable to the anti-vaccination movement. In January, the World Health Organization named “vaccine hesitancy” a top 10 threat to global health in 2019.

Tell students that again, “You need to click on the hyperlink, anti-vaccination movement, to understand where the information is coming from. The hyperlink takes you to an article titled, “The Vaccine-Autism Myth Started 20 Years Ago Here’s Why It Still Endures Today.


Part 2: Critically Analyzing a Magazine Article

For Part 2 of this lesson, students will work in groups of 4 to 5 to read and critically analyze the article, “The Vaccine-Autism Myth Started 20 Years Ago Here’s Why It Still Endures Today.”

In their small groups, they'll ask each other the same three inquiry questions:

  1. What’s going on in this text?
  2. What do you read that makes you say that?
  3. What else can we find?

Encourage students to click on hyperlinks in the article and do whatever research necessary to substantiate the claims in the article. If not all students have laptops, one student from each group can look up the information. The goal is to have them critically analyze the text and the sources within the text.

Then have students reconvene for a whole-class discussion about the article.


Close part two of the lesson by asking the following questions:

  • How can you know if what you’re reading is valid or trustworthy?
  • When you read the article, did you determine if a source, let’s say Dr. Jonathan D. Quick, the article’s author, was credible or trustworthy? If you did not take the extra step to determine if the article’s author was credible, how would you do that?
  • How will you use what you’ve learned when reading Facebook, YouTube, and other social media posts and articles?


For more on visual thinking strategies: