Tug of War: Thinking Moves to Explore the Complexity of Dilemmas

Tug of War Thinking Routine

“Most of all, have the confidence in every learner’s ability to think and your capacity to nurture that thinking. The results will amaze and energize you.” - Ron Ritchhart

Why are thinking routines useful in the classroom?

Visible thinking routines actively engage students in independent thinking, creativity, and imagination by engaging students’ thinking moves. Teachers utilize visible thinking routines to support students in building a habit of critical thinking and confidence in the classroom.


What is the Tug of War Thinking Routine?

The Tug-of-War thinking routine helps students unpack complex forces that “tug” at either side of dilemmas. Developing the ability to analyze issues and develop a stance that is supported by evidence and reasoning is a critical skill.

In this routine, students strengthen their reasoning skills by identifying the “tugs” or “pulls” relevant to a specific dilemma, evaluating the pulls based on their relative strength, and taking stances based on evidence rather than opinion. Most importantly, we want to encourage students to develop and consider multiple viewpoints without rushing to agree or disagree with a specific claim. We want to facilitate a process of building strong explanations based on evidence as we subject the different “tugs” and “pulls” to scrutiny.


Selecting Content

Tug-of-War and other thinking routines can be a powerful tool in combination with the new science standards most teachers are facing, like NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) as well as NGSS-adapted science state standards used across the nation. When selecting content for this routine, look for phenomena in disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) that exists in a context that naturally presents multiple dilemmas, such as issues of fairness. Content well suited to a Tug-of-War will present students with the opportunity to uncover and debate many alternatives, particularly ones where all options result in less-than-desirable outcomes.


Steps for the Tug-of-War Thinking Routine

Step 1: Frame the dilemma and the opposing sides

To effectively frame a dilemma with students, you will need to present the situation and engage students in defining the opposing sides. Provide just enough information to get students started, then use generative and facilitative questions to push students to uncover the complexity framing the issue. The goal here is to identify and thereby frame the different sides to the issue known as “anchor points.” Complex issues often have more than one dilemma and more than one opposing side causing tension.

Step 2: Generate “Tugs” or reasons to support the opposing sides of the dilemma

Have students generate as many “tugs” or reasons to support each side of the dilemma as they can. Think of these tugs as support or evidence that a pull has more strength. Encourage students not to jump to conclusions. This can sometimes happen if students only generate tugs for a view they support; this is not an activity about getting one's own idea to win.

Step 3: Position the “Tugs” based on the strength of their pull

Not all “tugs” are equally compelling, some will have greater strength than others. Students should sort tugs on the “rope” based on the strength of reasoning and evidence it provides. This will help students to compare the relative strength of each tug as they formulate their final position on the dilemma.

Step 4: Ask “What if...” questions

This step in the routine will help students to further evaluate the “tugs.” Ask students to generate “What if…” questions to place next to each of the tugs to help them identify factors that require further exploration. “What if...” is a question that would pull in another direction.

Step 5: Share Thinking

Sharing thinking provides students with an opportunity to discuss what new concerns or ideas emerged during the course of the thinking routine. This is a great time to explore how students' thinking or inclination to support one side or another may have changed and what factors may have influenced that change. Often “What if...” will expose new anchor points and tug at issues that were not recognized early on.

Are you excited to try out the Tug-of-War thinking routine? Download a free anchor chart to share with your students today! Ready to learn even more about thinking routines? Visit our page dedicated to the topic.


Tug of War Anchor Chart



Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible. Jossey Bass Wiley.