George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

A Group Learning Activity With Surprises

In this clever activity, students have two hours to research and plan a group presentation—with surprising twists along the way.

August 2, 2023
monkeybusinessimages / iStock

Are you looking for an engaging and authentic group learning activity for your students? It can be as simple as 1-2-3: Pick one timely topic, find two hours of time, and create three life interruptions. The results we’ve seen have been amazing authentic learning experiences.

Using this activity can also allow you to build a classroom culture and community that is collaborative as well as providing you insight into student ideas and perspectives regarding issues that they face in their lives. If done at the beginning of the school year, this small-group task can be used to allow students a chance to get to know their classmates. 

We use this activity to allow students to develop their skills in universal constructs such as complex communication, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, flexibility or adaptability, productivity, and accountability, as well as building social and emotional learning competencies.

The 4-Step Process

In small groups, students are asked to create a presentation to respond to one topic prompt. They are then given two hours to research and create their message with three interruptions in the form of “life events,” which replicate real-life disruptive occurrences. Depending on one’s schedule, a teacher might need to use three class periods for preparation and one additional class period for the presentations. If you are on block scheduling, two blocks would likely be sufficient.

1. Give small groups a topic: The idea is simple: give the students the relevant and engaging topic as a driving question and then get out of their way. We have used topics like “How does technology impact human connections?” and “How can belonging be cultivated in your community(ies)?” Other ideas could include “How could school schedules be designed to maximize learning opportunities for students?” “Is college a good investment?” “In what ways could school more closely replicate the workforce?” “Should professional athletes be paid as much as they are?” As you can see, there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions.

2. Preparing the presentation: As students work, it is a marvel to watch as they take ownership of their final product and message. Allow the students to determine how they want to present their information—maybe they will make a video, create a Prezi, use Canva, or develop a skit. However they decide to present should be left completely open and up to them, and they need to be encouraged to utilize their strengths.

3. Life events: While the presentations are the culmination of the event, the real value comes from the interruptions that disrupt the work time. It sounds strange to hear that students enjoyed the disruptions, but they understand that these replicate surprises that occur in the workplace. Each disruption (or “life event”) takes away 10 minutes from the students. We leave the first 30 minutes undisturbed and then interrupt the students every 30 minutes, for a total of three life events.

In order to keep the “life events” as random as possible, each group was given six sealed envelopes with the following life events in them:

  • Internet outage (you must remove your devices from Wi-Fi)
  • Team member calls in sick (one team member is removed for 10 minutes to “sick bay”)
  • Copyright check (all team members must watch a 10-minute video on copyright)
  • Branding (presentation must be “branded” with school logo, colors, etc.)
  • Boss direction (boss provides a favorite quote that must be used in the presentation)
  • Technology failure (all laptops must be shut for 10 minutes for “repair”)

When directed, teams select one envelope to open and then follow the direction on the card. We created more life events than necessary so that teams would not know which card they might select. By providing more options, we were able to keep the unpredictability of the event for all teams.

4. Delivering the presentation: Each group delivers their presentation. Often, groups have arrived at opposite conclusions, and the presentations are an interesting insight into the diversity of viewpoints in the room. This also creates an opportunity to engage in a later discussion about how differing viewpoints can still be backed by evidence and how evidence can lead us to change our ideas. Should time allow afterward, students can share how they made their decisions and whether they have new ideas now that they have heard from their classmates.


During the small-group time, teachers move around the room, listening to the engaging discussions that take place in the teams, and utilize their observations on a scoring rubric. The student discussions are made possible by the topic prompt, one in which there is no right or wrong answer. 

We use this scoring rubric to assess student participation. To allow students to feel safe in their creativity, teachers should make it clear that students are not being assessed on a “right” answer; instead, their work process is being assessed more than their final product. Teachers should score the final product understanding that students had two hours (30 minutes of which were taken by the life events). If students are intimidated by the assessment aspect, they will not be able to fully immerse themselves in the experience, as they will be too anxious about the final grade. 

The idea is simple: one topic, two hours, three interruptions, and amazing authentic learning!

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  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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