An Ode to What’s My Line?
Critical thinking is not a capacity that arrives naturally. We learn to operate in this world by observing it, by watching how our parents and others before us operate. This is the most basic form of learning where we learn important things like how not to get hurt, how to make something important like bread that we have been making for generations, how to fashion a bow and arrow the way our ancestors did which served them so well. But without thinking critically, we don’t really move ahead. If we don’t learn to question, to reflect and to decide based on evidence, we don’t thrive, and we don’t contribute much to forward progress. Therefore, it’s essential for all to learn the importance of critical thinking in everyday life.
The importance of critical thinking in everyday life must be taught in home and in school. Teachers have always had the responsibility to develop critical thinking skills, but now, more so than ever. In today’s technology-based world, the pace and scope of the dissemination of knowledge, as well as balderdash that presents itself as knowledge, can be overwhelming. We are bombarded not only with information, but with misinformation and lies. Making sense of what comes at us is an urgent and significant need. Critical thinking is required to analyze, evaluate and form an opinion. The big question is: Is this information reliable or not? What can I make of it?
The old television show What’s My Line?, which is freely available on YouTube, can be a marvelous teaching tool that entertains while demonstrating exquisite logic, and obviously the need for critical thinking. Produced and televised to American homes for 25 years, from 1950 to 1975, it was the number one game show for decades, and in fact, set the standard for game shows since. (The tremendous popularity of the show in the early days of television generated homegrown versions in countries across the globe, so you might be familiar with it even if you did not grow up in the USA.)
Here is the show’s basic premise: Over 25 minutes, four panelists must guess the occupation (“line”) of contestants by asking questions that can only be answered yes or no; a moderator takes care to move the game along, providing guidance. It’s as simple as that.
I have found it to be a superb classroom resource, a model of the importance of critical thinking for students while amusing, intriguing and engaging learners. It is at once a fashion show, a history lesson, an etiquette workshop, and a humorous diversion while showcasing critical reasoning.
Before I talk about it further, why not watch an episode? Here is one I have selected for you. Or, go yourself to www.YouTube.com, and search “what’s my line”. You will have your choice of several hundred.
What is so special about the show?
Well, for one, it consistently gives a lesson on the importance of critical thinking in everyday life. Watch how the panelists drill down to get significant information. In the Wikipedia entry about What’s My Line, you read: “Panelists adopted some basic binary search strategies, beginning with broad questions, such as whether the contestant worked for a for-profit corporation or non-profit organization or whether a product was alive, worn, or ingested. To increase the probability of affirmative answers, panelists would often phrase questions in the negative starting with “Is it something other than…” or “Can I rule out…
What’s My Line? provides an authentic lesson in history on the importance of critical thinking in everyday life. Aside from seeing the fashions of the day, one meets famous celebrities (actors, astronauts, artists, politicians) who make appearances as the “mystery guest”, and the panelists must blindfold themselves while asking their questions to discover who it is. The mystery guest, then, must disguise his voice, often in amusing ways. Such guests were Muhammed Ali, Salvador Dali, Woody Allen, Elizabeth Taylor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan…it does not matter if your students are not familiar with them today. It is still an interesting glimpse of history.
The nature of questions requiring only yes/no answers makes listening to the show a perfect challenge to English language learners, for the discussion is built question by question, easy to follow. The vocabulary employed and the diction of the panelists and moderator are superb. I have used this as an opener to discussion in adult English language classes, and the students love it.
The good manners expressed on the show is a timeless example of courteous behavior. You can tell everyone enjoys each other tremendously, are good-natured and unfailingly polite, even when they joke with each other. We need to model such behavior to children.
We also have the opportunity to see how behavioral norms change over time. Wolf whistles from the audience occurred frequently when a comely female contestant appeared; this, we know, is not acceptable today. Females in predominantly male professions at the time elicited interest in and of itself, and often provoked questions such as, “Are you a lady bus driver?” Today, this is quaint, and presents opportunity for discussion about the progress of feminism over the years.
Using What’s My Line? In the classroom serves multiple purposes, and is always enjoyable; I’ve used it with pupils from 12 years on up to adults. Here are some suggestions about how to use What’s My Line? as a learning tool and let the students know about the importance of critical thinking in everyday life:
- Once a month, schedule What’s My Line? Day. Show an episode, and talk about it. In function of the guests, the program could jumpstart a little lesson on the Space Race or the Cold War, or the birth of the term disc jockey.
- Have an explicit discussion about the logical process, breaking down how they did, or did not, arrive at the conclusion; talk about the role of the moderator in eliminating confusing information and keeping the panelists on track.
- After watching an episode, then play the game yourselves in class. Choose four students as the panel, and one as the guest who will play the role of practicing a specific profession that you assign. You as teacher should play the moderator/host. The rest of the students are the studio or tv audience. This way everyone will be engaged.
- Send the four panelists out of the room while you choose the contestant and let her and the rest of the students know what her line is…then invite the four panelists back in. As a lesson in language and courtesy, you might even follow the show exactly, and have the panelists each introduce the next panelist.
- Follow the rules of the game: ten no answers and the contestant wins (this keeps the activity within a reasonable time frame).
- Depending on the age of your students, you will have to tailor the lines (occupations) to things the students will know and understand. In Germany, I had a middle schooler pretending he sold Wurst, sausages, at football games, and another was a nurse…both lines were in the ken of the students so, with my help on occasion as moderator (just as on the show itself), the answers could be credibly accurate. I did not hesitate to intervene, even to suggest questions for the players, because they are not the mature public figures the tv panelists are…your students might need some support (we teachers call that scaffolding).
I bet you will watch more than a few of these episodes to analyze the importance of critical thinking for students. You might come to love Arlene, Bennet, Dorothy, and John Charles Daley. If you’re like me, they will become old friends. This is why I enjoy sharing this show with my students. I think these old friends can explain the importance of critical thinking in academic life.