Practising Questions : Lateral Thinking Problems

Lateral Thinking puzzles were first invented by the psychologist Dr Edward de Bono (1). They consist of a simple situation which at first sight seems strange, but actually has a very simple explanation, and were intended to encourage creative (or “lateral”) thinking. You tell the students the situation and they can then ask Yes/No questions about it until they understand what happened. In particular, it’s a great way of practising simple past and past continuous questions, but at a higher level students also have the chance to incorporate and practise the past perfect and other structures. Here are two such situations :

1. A man was lying dead in a field with a bag beside him. How did he die?
2. A woman walked into a bar and asked for a glass of water. The barman pulled out a gun and pointed it at her. The woman said “Thank you” and left. Why?

(Answers later!)

The sort of questions that the students might ask include (for the first situation) : Was there anything in the bag? (Yes) Did the thing in the bag kill him? (No, but it didn't save him either) Was it a snake? (No) Was the man carrying the bag when he came into the field? (Yes) Did he walk into the field? (No) Did he arrive by car? (No) Was there anyone else in the field? (No) Did somebody shoot him? (No) Was he alive when he first came into the field? (Only for a fraction of a second) and so on. As you can see, it’s not always necessary (or possible) to answer only Yes or No. Students do sometimes need a bit more help if the activity is to stay pacy. The important thing is that you don’t answer “give-away” questions like What was in the bag?
The problem with this activity is that after asking a few “obvious” questions, the students tend to dry up, and the whole point of these puzzles is that they don’t have obvious answers. The activity therefore has to be set up carefully so that students understand what they have to do.

Here’s the activity sequence which I use in the classroom.
  • Stage A : Explain the first situation above and the activity, and let students ask whatever questions they come up with.
  • Stage B : Tell them they’re going to hear a tape of two native speakers playing the same game- you can script this yourself and record it with a colleague. They should listen and find out what the answer is.
  • Stage C : In pairs, they try and remember and write down some of the questions that were asked on the tape. When they’ve done all they remember, replay the tape pausing after each question to ask and write on the board what the speaker said.
  • Stage D : Explain the second situation above. In pairs they have a few minutes to plan four or five questions to ask. While they work, the teacher circulates, correcting and helping as necessary but not answering the questions.
  • Stage E : The students ask the questions. If you have a large class, they can be divided into groups and one student in each group given the answer. With smaller classes it can be done in teacher/class format.
  • Stage F : When they run out of questions, ask them to recap on everything they’ve learnt so far before putting them back into pairs and asking them to write some more questions. If they seem really stuck, give them a clue – for instance, the woman wanted the water because she had a problem. This immediately gives them a new direction for their questions.
The activity goes on until either they guess the answer, or they seem to have had enough. If that happens, the teacher can give one or two more obvious clues so that within a couple of questions, they’ve solved it.

Oh yes – the answers. In the first situation, the man jumped out of a plane but his parachute didn’t open, and in the second, the woman had hiccups.
1. Dr de Bono’s personal website can be found here :

2. For some more examples of lateral thinking problems (and their answers!), try here :

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Material Girl via flickr

 For some great teaching ideas...

Gerngross, Puchta and Thornbury, Teaching Grammar Creatively, CUP

(Remember that Amazon often has both new and used copies of the books you want at prices lower than those advertised here. It's always worth checking it out.)

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