Koko the Gorilla – a Critical Thinking Exercise

image of a gorilla
Reading Time: 2 minutes

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 was expressing her thoughts. But was she?

Critical Thinking: Was Koko 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 Koko’s abilities, show students the first video in the exercise which claims that Koko is communicating her thoughts. Students will likely find the video very convincing.
  2. Koko Question 1: after watching the videos, ask students to commit to a number on the 1-10 scale.
  3. Then show these videos:
    1. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong: this famous video shows how B.F. Skinner was able, using reinforcement techniques, to get pigeons to do something that looks very human: playing ping-pong.
    2. Clever Hans: this video discusses the famous horse that appeared to have human skills. However, maybe this was simply the result, again, of rewarded behaviors.
    3. 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 inner motives.
  4. KoKo Question 2: have students answer the 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. Hopefully they’ll see that we have to very careful when we observe and come to conclusions about seemingly amazing occurrences.

Click the image below to participate in this online activity:


You can place this activity – or any web page – into MindTap! Here’s how: