I Think, I Thought, I Thunk

I learned a new word today – “thunk”. It is but not really related to the past tense for the word “think”. I’ve seen it floating around our school news letters but I didn’t really dig into the significance of it until today. So what’s a “thunk”?

Define: Thunk

A thunk is an unusual question that makes you think; or as Ian Gilbert explains more eloquently:

A beguiling question about everyday things that stops you in your tracks and helps you start to look at the world in a whole new light.


The most important thing to be aware about thunks is that there are no right or wrong answers, just well-thought out ones.

What’s the Meaning of a Thunk?

We know that it is important to teach children thinking skills, especially critical thinking. We’ve also talked about using philosophy to develop critical thinking, analytical and reasoning skills. When we talk about philosophy, the images that come to mind are of aging individuals in thought-provoking discussions about sole-searching, metaphysical questions, such as the meaning of life. At its heart, philosophy is just a discussion about abstract ideas where there are no right or wrong answers. That sure sounds a lot like discussing “thunks” to me.

If “thunking” is just another name for philosophy, then we can assume that thunks offer the same benefits as a philosophical discussion:

  • Improves English and Math skills – students achieve better academic results
  • Develops thinking skills – critical thinking, analytical and reasoning skills
  • Social benefits such as better self-esteem and empathy for others
  • Less bullying and behaviour-management issues

Using ‘Thunk’ questions to improve participation and thinking skills in students

There is an interesting case study of thunks being used in a school environment by Claire Simmons from Dame Alice Owen’s School. Her goal was to “develop a more participative approach to learning and help students develop their thinking skills so that they might become more independent learners”. She introduced the concept of thunks after coming across Ian Gilbert’s Little Book of Thunks and “found that students were becoming more able or disposed to think and go beyond the information given to them; they enjoyed using Thunks that related to their studies but also to issues in their own lives”.

…students’ were enjoying intellectual challenges, arguing, expressing their opinion and dealing with uncertainty. She felt there was a culture shift towards a more collaborative, participatory approach to learning and concluded that using Thunks had an impact on the way the students define intelligence; moving away from simply remembering information towards a wider range of intellectual skills.

Using ‘Thunk’ questions for encouraging creative thinking

Highschool teacher Sarah Sorge shares a very thoughtful perspective about using thunks to encourage students to think creatively. I would encourage you to read her article in its entirety, but these were the paragraphs that really leaped out at me:

If I were to ask you “What two days of the week begin with the letter T?,” what would you answer? If you said “Tuesday and Thursday,” then congratulations! You may now give yourself a pat on the back for being correct. But what if another person responded “today and tomorrow,” would that individual be any less correct than you? I would argue not; they merely have a different way of thinking about a concept.

Due to the pressures of our daily classroom lives, we often inadvertently stifle creativity before it has a chance to flourish. As teachers, we are often unable to entertain those tangential ‘slightly off-topic’ questions that could be good but may suck away precious time from our lesson plans. We’re acutely aware that every precious minute counts we have the students in our desks. In the end, I wonder, are we doing a disservice to our students’ creativity and willingness to think outside of the curriculum.

One of my practices is to say to my students “you’re very close” and proceed to help them come to the correct answer with a little guidance, or I may also say “that’s a good point. Let’s discuss that.” I have found that my students are more open and receptive to volunteering answers, asking questions, and bringing up connections to what they see in their personal lives if they know they will not be shot down by me or their peers for thinking differently with a knee-jerk reaction of “wrong.” I was pleasantly surprised to see that, when I practiced this in front of my students, they mimicked me and were more accepting when I made mistakes. They learn that creativity is not wrong; it is merely a different way of perceiving the world.

Examples of Thunks

  • What colour is Tuesday?
  • Is there more happiness or sadness in the world?
  • If the answer is “once with a fish”, what is the question?
  • If elephants ruled the world, what changes would you see?
  • Can you have a friend that you don’t really like?
  • If you see someone being bullied, should you do anything about it? If you don’t, should you feel guilty?
  • Which is more important – being right or being nice?
  • If you say sorry but don’t mean it, but the person you say it to thinks that you do, does it count?
  • If you paint over a window, is it still a window?
  • Is it ever right to bully a bully?
  • If I lose my memory, am I the same person?
  • Can I be accused of cheating if I don’t know the rules?

You can also try these 20 fun thunks for kids.

Get more thunks here.

So what do you think? Are you going to get thunking today?


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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