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Koko the Gorilla - a Critical Thinking Exercise


Koko, the gorilla who was taught sign language, died on June 19, 2018 at the age of 48. Her signing abilities were amazing (she could sign about 1,000 words) and videos of her on YouTube are very touching to watch. It's easy to believe she's communicating with humans.


But was she really communicating her inner thoughts?


Below is a critical thinking exercise you can feel free to link to or embed in your online course. It is structured in a way that is consistent with ideas suggested in Ken Bain's book, "What the Best College Teachers Do":


  1. Show Videos: before saying anything about whether or not you or other researchers question whether or not Koko was truly communicating her inner thoughts, show students the videos. Most likely they will be convinced that Koko is communicating like humans.
  2. Koko Question 1: after watching the videos, ask students to commit to a number on the 1-10 scale. Below I have embedded a link to this one question survey that I created using PollEverywhere. Then show these videos:
  3. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong: this famous video shows how B.F. Skinner was able, using shaping methods, to get pigeons to do something that looks very human: playing ping-pong.   You may want to talk about how rewards can shape both simple and complex behaviors.
  4. Clever Hans: shows that animal behavior that appears human may be simply the result of reinforcement.
  5. Rubber the Movie: this video shows how easy it is for us humans to anthropomorphize: notice how even something with no face at all like a tire can appear to have motives. 
  6. KoKo Question 2: have students answer this question again.

Now that students have made a commitment before and after viewing the videos their positions have probably changed.  Ask them why they changed (or why they didn't) and where they stand on the issue of animal communication now.



Right click here to copy the link to this exercise.  Feel free to put this in your course!


Would you like more instructor resources for this post? They are available in our Community Exclusive area at this link: Koko & Critical Thinking - Instructor Resources. NOTE this is a faculty-only area. Not a faculty member of the community? It's free. When prompted, log in with your MindTap or WebAssign credentials, or email the Community Manager, Michael Britt to get easily set up in the community:


Click here to login into MindTap to add this activity to your course.


MindTap is included with Cengage Unlimited.

Thanks to Faculty Partner Diane Carter @diane_carter for her invaluable help in refining this exercise! 



  1. What the Best College Teachers Do - Ken Bain
  2. Koko, the gorilla who mastered sign language, has died
  3. We wanted to believe in Koko, and so we did
  4. Koko: Gorilla death coverage rekindles language debate
  5. Koko The Signing Gorilla Is Just California Dreaming
Frequent Commenter

This activity promotes deep thinking and I am going to integrate this into our online and residential communications course. This could also be used in an English comp course. I plan on breaking part of it up for a discussion board prompt - "review this video clip and answer....."

The use of videos is great for residential and online courses and the associated videos will also reinforce the discussion around communication versus reinforced behaviors.

Thanks for the great lesson and resources Diane!


Yes, I like the way you integrate videos and discussions into this Padlet and make the students think deeply about what  they see and how they respond to it.  My students would enjoy this!  Being the tech geek, my only question is how easy it is for professors to set up and students to follow and do as told.  Does it require additional instructions or training or is it pretty intuitive?

Frequent Commenter


I create a tip sheet with easy directions for students to use Padlet. If you outline the purpose/goals of the Padlet board, and tips on how to use it - it is very simple.You can also clone the board for your next class to use too.

Here is a video on how to use Padlet:



This one is older but I really like it:



thanks!  and do students have to sign up for an account even when it's embedded in MT or do they just work off of the instructor's account?

Frequent Commenter

You can add multiple users or single users, even with the free account.

Go to the link below, and then click on multiple users (in pink)


But, if you embed the code/link in MT, do you still have to import users or can students get right in?

Frequent Commenter

I have successfully embedded the link into my Canvas and Blackboard courses.

Use the Share menu and add the link as an external tool. You can choose to open in a new page or in the LMS....


My account is now all set up and I added one to Canvas in 5 minutes! It does appear, however, that my students need an account to access it so I need to play around a bit more to see how to bypass that...

Frequent Commenter

I use Padlet and I love it! It is a perfect way to host class collaboration projects and brainstorming. I think of it as a class bulletin board with links, photos, quotes, etc.


Valued Contributor

Cool technology and concept. Not sure I'd use/take the time to create things outside of my LMS/MindTap. 


This information was very engaging. I would like to use it in some form in my next course


Thanks Diane for sharing. The use of videos and Padlet is a learner-centered, engaging activity. I have been introduced to Padlet before, but never actually used it. However, through your post via Michael, I plan to add Padlet to my toolkit.


Engaging Essie


Valued Contributor

These activities will work nicely in my upcoming criminology course! I'll check out the instructions on how to include it into my MindTap for the course.  Simple, bite-sized critical thinking activities are a fantastic way to start a class. I know I always struggled with new and interesting ways to get students engaged in the material, understanding that simply because I find it intriguing doesn't always mean that they will!


Thanks for sharing!




I like this a lot, I just can't use it in my history courses Smiley Happy It reminded me of the one thing that I always use from conferences and workshops:  video clips.  I could type out a list of clips I have "borrowed" from other folks for professional development sessions and classes.  Having brief activities that teachers could view, upload or reinvent to meet their needs would be fantastic. 


As I plan professional development for our faculty on campus, I focus on encouraging faculty to vary their presentation methods, use technology appropriately and to be interactive.  These types of posts would help faculty tremendously.




PS and the first thing I think of is Ice Breakers that are new and diverse and an alternative to think, pair, share. 


I really like this exercise. Critical thinking is a skill that is applicable in almost every career as well as in other courses. I can see this as an interesting and seemingly fun way for students in my Information Systems classes - from computer literacy through programming. Thanks for sharing this Michael, as well as everyone else's input and insight.


Hi Terri ~


I like this exercise as well but can't seem to figure out how I'd use it in my Intro to Computing course.  I see you mentioned using it in your Info Sys class.  Would you mind sharing your ideas or thoughts? 



Joan ~


Hi Terri ~


Sorry, I am assuming you are referencing the Padlet website.



Joan ~


I could see using it to spark some interesting Discussion or for a Survey in my Intro Computing classes, especially for the concepts portion.  We talk about some fascinating new technologies so you could post a controversial video (maybe about what's going on with Facebook, or cyber-security) and have students post their thoughts or ratings.  For the applications portion, you could post a video on Office updates and get students to talk about features they like or don't like or how valuable they are in business.... Or post a doc that is not formatted correctly and have the students pick it apart?!




These are excellent ideas!  Thank you, I am definitely going to borrow them.