Teaching Critical Thinking through the Mock Trial

Article excerpt

Today's teachers must educate children who grow up in front of a television set, who own their own radio, stereo, or computer, and who have access to magazines, libraries, and community education classes. Children are bombarded with some accurate, some biased, and some erroneous information about drug use, nutrition, fitness, and sexual issues that could involve life and death decisions. Students already have formed opinions about health behavior through the media and bring these preconceived notions with them to class. It is sometimes difficult for a student to accept information presented by an instructor, due to conflicting reports on health-related information from the media. In the mock trial technique, information from a variety of sources is analyzed and its validity is "debated." The technique works best with grades 11 through college.

Because health-related issues have a significant impact on values and moral decisions, the mock courtroom trial has effectively stimulated critical thinking. Not only does the trial present several aspects of an issue, it offers students opportunities to study various opinions and facts from different perspectives without the teacher being the primary information giver. Thus, students have an opportunity to prepare the trial by analyzing media information and assimilating values and ideas of their peer group, which makes the learning more receptive and meaningful.


About two or three weeks before the trial date, the instructor introduces the technique by giving the class examples of possible topics that would lend themselves to a trial format: Should drug testing be done? Should punishments be more severe for drunk drivers? Should harmful weight loss products be promoted by the media? Should fitness facilities be accountable for accurate information and training techniques? Should pregnant women who use drugs be held responsible by the courts for damage done to the unborn child? Should fathers have any rights concerning abortion? Who should be responsible for sexuality education--parents or teachers?

Students are encouraged to brainstorm as many ideas as possible for 20 minutes. All possibilities are discussed to determine if sufficient controversy exists within the group to make the topic arguable; topics then are voted on by the class. After a topic is selected, the instructor develops a scenario, a brief summary of the pros and cons of the issues, indicating arguments for the prosecution and defense, complete with witness assignments (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Mock Trial Scenario

More and more information about the threat to babies
lives--addiction, life threatening diseases, and
deformities--as a result of their mothers' drug use while
pregnant is being released to the public. This reality is
frightening and deserves examination. The issue on trial is
to determine whether or not a woman can be charged with a
criminal act if she uses drugs while pregnant.

Points to consider:

* Some women may not realize that they are pregnant when they
use drugs.

* Is the court system capable of making decisions regarding

* How far can the justice system go in determining right and

* If the mother is not responsible for the child's life, who

Prosecution                         Defense

(Wants to make the mother liable)   (Does not believe that in
                                    all cases the mother is

Witnesses                           Witnesses

1) Physician                        1) Nurse
2) Right to Life representative     2) Civil Rights expert
3) Social Worker                    3) Psychiatrist
4) Your choice                      4) Your choice

Every class member receives a handout of the scenario and an opportunity to 'volunteer' for the positions of judge, attorneys, and witnesses for both sides. By using two attorneys for each side, students can lend support to each other. …