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20 Questions: Can You Stump the Machine?



  • Arts & Humanities
    --Foreign Language
  • Educational Technology
  • Mathematics
  • Vocational Education


  • K-2
  • 3-5
  • 6-8
  • 9-12

Brief Description

Students build critical thinking skills as they attempt to stump a "20 Questions" machine.



  • use a technology tool that will help them learn to think critically.
  • collect data related to the number of correct responses given by the 20Q technology tool.
  • think critically about how the technology behind 20Q works.


technology, 20 questions, game, critical thinking

Materials Needed

  • access to the Internet site or to the game version of 20Q, which is available in many toy stores (see more info below)

Lesson Plan

This lesson includes the use of a very special Web site: The 20Q in the site's name is short for the popular guessing game, 20 Questions. The Web site is an experiment in artificial intelligence, and its critical-thinking abilities will amaze you and your students. The premise is simple: Have an object in your mind and answer the questions that 20Q poses as it tries to guess the object. Chances are good that the "machine" will guess correctly!

Note: You might have seen the original classic version of 20Q game, or the dome-topped 20Q Challenge family game, in toy stores. 20Q is also available now in a calculator-sized version too. To learn more about purchasing the game, click the link to the 20Q Store on the Web site.

After you've played around a bit with 20Q, consider the possibilities for using this amazing tool in the classroom. Here are just a few possibilities

Critical Thinking. Actively involve students in responding to the questions posed by 20Q. Students are bound to debate their responses. Is the correct response to the question Doubtful or Rarely? Is the correct answer Probably or Usually? The debates that result are a great process for building students' critical thinking skills; they will learn to think more deeply before responding the 20Q's questions.

Across the Curriculum. Have students challenge 20Q to guess an object related to your curriculum, a teaching unit, or a specific lesson.

Math. Have each student play a game against 20Q. How many students came up with an object that stumped 20Q? Have students collect data and figure out

  • What percent of objects did 20Q guess in 15 or fewer questions?
  • What percent of objects did 20Q guess in 16-20 questions?
  • What percent of students in the class stumped 20Q? (What percent of objects were not guessed within the first 20 questions?)
Students might create a graph to show the class's results. They might even use the free online Create a Graph tool to create their graphs.

Foreign Language. 20Q can be a great tool to use in foreign language classes. The game can be played in French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and several other languages. Since the vocabulary involved is fairly limited, even students just beginning to learn a language can play the game.

Language Arts. Once students are familiar with the thought processes used by 20Q, you might have them play "20 Questions" 1:1 with a peer. Each student might choose an object and challenge the partner to ask questions to help them guess the object. Students might keep a journal/record of their questions and their partner's responses.

Technology. Challenge students to share their thoughts about, and debate the possibilities of, how the technology behind 20Q might work. The site explains that "Everything [20Q] knows and all the questions that it asks were entered by people playing the game. is a learning system; the more it is played, the smarter it gets." While the tool's behavior is complex, the program is pretty simple. The "machine" likely has or keeps some kind of "database" of previous objects and of the questions asked and user responses, and calls on that database as new players challenge it to guess the objects they have in mind.

Anytime. When you have five minutes to spare, 20Q is a great tool for keeping student focused. Playing 20Q online will model for students some excellent critical-thinking questions that will make the standard (non-technical) game more interesting.


Play a game of Twenty Questions without the 20Q tool. Are students' questions and responses more thoughtful than they might have been before introduced to the 20Q technology?

Lesson Plan Source

Submitted By

Gary Hopkins

National Standards

NL-ENG.K-12.3 Evaluation Strategies
NL-ENG.K-12.4 Communication Skills
NL-ENG.K-12.5 Communication Strategies
NL-ENG.K-12.6 Applying Knowledge
NL-ENG.K-12.12 Applying Language Skills

LANGUAGE ARTS: Foreign Language

MATHEMATICS: Number and Operations
GRADES Pre-K - 2
NM-NUM.PK-2.3 Compute Fluently and Make Reasonable Estimates
GRADES 3 - 5
NM-NUM.3-5.3 Compute Fluently and Make Reasonable Estimates
GRADES 6 - 8
NM-NUM.6-8.3 Compute Fluently and Make Reasonable Estimates
GRADES 9 - 12
NM-NUM.9-12.3 Compute Fluently and Make Reasonable Estimates

MATHEMATICS: Representation
GRADES Pre-K - 12
NM-REP.PK-12.1 Create and Use Representations to Organize, Record, and Communicate Mathematical Ideas
NM-REP.PK-12.3 Use Representations to Model and Interpret Physical, Social, and Mathematical Phenomena

NT.K-12.1 Basic Operations and Concepts
NT.K-12.6 Technology Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Tools

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