I have only been teaching at the high school level for 13 years, But when I entered the profession, pretty much every classroom had students sitting in rows while the teacher stood up front and lectured, gave direct instruction, read from PowerPoint slides, whatever you want to call it.
The picture is unmistakable: up front the teacher is active and talking while students passively sit and listen in their desks. Almost all classrooms looked like this, and mine was no exception. To get students more engaged, in the 1990s and 2000s, teachers were trained in different strategies, and Think-Pair-Share (TPS) was ubiquitous.
Before I go on, let me just say this: if a teacher only uses direct instruction, and the next instructional strategy he learns how to use TPS, then that teacher should absolutely use it. But if a teacher has several strategies and some skill for engagement, then it’s time to evolve to the next level.
When I first used TPS, I didn’t like it. I know, I know. I was probably doing it wrong. And I experienced a lot of problems that didn’t live up to the promise:
- Some students didn’t talk to each other.
- Some pairs didn’t discuss the learning at all.
- Some pairs sat in awkward silence.
- I would call on someone and ask, “What did your partner say,” and I would get an “I don’t know” from the student called upon.
- Whole class discussion afterward was disjointed and awkward.
Some experiences were good, but for me to find a strategy worth while, it needs to have a hit rate that is higher than 50 percent. TPS was not that strategy.
When I held various versions of a Socratic Seminar, I had much greater success. As I spent time honing my skills producing and leading whole class discussions, I wanted to work on my skills of leading small-group (2 – 4 students) discussions. My seating chart had students grouped in fours, and each day there was class time for discussion of our learning, which was better than students sitting there passively, but something was off.
Convenient Grouping Leads to Groupthink
I would notice that the more a group sat together, and the more they talked together, not only would they eventually come to play out the same discussion pattern and roles, but they would form a little four-student groupthink culture. It got to the point where I could predict what particular tables would say in response to a question posed to the whole class. And the most shocking revelation was that these groups would sit together anywhere from four to six weeks, and many of them wouldn’t bother to learn the names of the other people sitting at their table! Some of them had been in the same classes for years too! Think about how creepy that is: young people were sharing a mind for an hour a day and they wouldn’t learn each other’s names. Ewww!
Periodically, I would shake up the seating chart, but over a disturbingly short period of time, that micro-groupthink would settle in again. I concluded that “talking with those sitting nearby” was far too convenient a practice and my students needed something different. But what?
Around that time I was reading about the importance of movement in the classroom. The more students can get moving, the better it would be for their cognitive function, like little brain jolts. In the fight against groupthink-creep, I wanted the students to form partners for one or two conversations, then move on to talk with others. And for the love of learning, I wanted them to know the names of their classmates!
I realize that a teacher can combine TPS with flexible grouping through mixer activities, like having students wander around the room in a zombie-like gait while music plays, and then they partner up when the music stops–which is better than forming groups out of convenience. But in my experience students usually just lock eyes with their friends while roaming the classroom appearing to be circulating at random, then inevitably pair up with each other, even if they must hurtle a couple of desks to do so. I didn’t want that either. Of course, there are always strategies like the appointment clock, but for me that usually ends in me throwing a tantrum because I can’t get 30+ teenagers to ever get the logistics down. It’s too complicated. We need simple. (This isn’t even mentioning the utter waste of a class period to fill out an appointment clock.)
A Simple Solution
One morning, when I was getting mentally prepared for another day of mediocre small-group conversations, one moment I was thinking through the questions I was going to ask, then the next moment I was cursing my method of convenient grouping. Back-and-forth went this internal tennis match, when a new thought emerged. What I really want students to do is have a conversation where the main focus is the content, not who’s sitting near them, and not their friend across the room. We were reading a novel, and I wanted the groups to form around the novel, and no other reason.
I thought, “How can I get them to have a novel conversation? How can I get them to talk about the text first, meet someone new, remember their name, and remember what they were talking about days later?” And with 20 minutes to go before the first bell was to ring, I had the answer! The Novel Conversations Tracker was born!
I made the sheet in a rush. I already had a template for Outside Reading sign ups, which already had student names listed, so I just needed to adjust the instructions at the top, and rename two of the columns. That was it. Done!
When my first class arrived, I passed out the sheets and described what we would be doing. Here’s what I told them:
- Find your name on the list and circle it.
- You will talk to two-thirds of the people on this list at least one time, while we read [title of novel] for the next [specified amount of time].
- Talk about what confuses you, what bothers you, connections you can make, and what predictions you have.
- Each person takes a turn talking.
- You will have 2.5 minutes to discuss, and 30 seconds to summarize.
- Then you will move on to another partner.
And then we were off and running!
At first, they talked with the people they knew best, but pretty quickly they ran out of friends. (Also, I didn’t mind my students getting used to the procedure with classmates they were comfortable talking to). Two days in, my students were moving around and talking to new people. Last year, I evolved the practice. While my Sophomores were reading Animal Farm, I had them use the Character Chart Handout from Kelly Gallagher’s Deeper Reading (here’s a link to my dropbox file, if you’re interested). For each character, they had a different partner for discussion. I also had them fill out a plot diagram in the same way. In years past, I used to just explain these assignments, and then have the students work individually or ad hoc partnerships they wanted to form (usually with friends). Now they completed the work in these micro-collaborations, and the constant switching had them awake and needing to constantly refocus.
As my students and I got the hang of having these brief conversations with new people, our impromptu whole-class discussions became much livelier and much deeper. If we were having a disagreement, and I could tell the class was divided, I would call an audible and have everyone jump up and do a four corners discussion. Now this is what I wanted class to look like! Students talking to each other, having text-based discussions, and collaborating with their classmates in meaningful ways, then standing their ground on a stance they were ready to argue.
Last year, when we did an inquiry-based argumentative research essay, I changed the form from “Novel Conversation Tracker” to “Research Conversation Tracker” (from now on, I will call it the “Ongoing Conversation Tracker”). Students were following their own inquiry questions in all directions using our library’s database, but then I would have them come together to summarize the articles they were reading and annotating. This was fun to watch! As the students were settling into their topic, their boredom was settling in too. The thing was, as soon as they shared some of the more interesting and sensational information from their articles, all with a classmate whom they didn’t know all that well, their partners were rapt, exclaiming, “You’re kidding! They just _________. I can’t believe someone would do that. What else happened?!”
The conversation starters were startled that someone would be interested in anything they had researched for a class. Especially something they annotated. That stuff is supposed to be boring, right? Instead, their conversation came alive. They sat up a little straighter and jumped into story-telling mode.
I had the students do self-reflection at the conclusion of the argumentative inquiry essay. Here is the question I posed about Research Conversations: In preparing to write your essay, how much value did you get from having “research conversations” with your classmates (either in sharing your research and/or hearing the research of others)? Here is what one of my more articulate Sophomores said:
Having research conversations, at first, did not strike me as necessary; however, I came to realize that the vast majority of my arguments, claims, and opinions were products of these classroom conversations.
When I read that, I think I stood up and fist pumped! This was it! Of course, not every student saw this kind of value in the research conversations, but plenty of students (well above 50 percent) claimed they found value in the activity. Some said that the conversations gave them a new source to look up. Others said the activity brought more clarity to their topic and/or their stance. Based on past experiences, prior to using ongoing conversations, I really don’t think this level of engagement and sharing (therefore, thinking) would have happened if students had merely shared with the group they were sitting next to, played musical partners with, or someone on their confusing appointment clock. If TPS was the iPhone, then this is iPhone 8!
The Ongoing Conversation Activity is for All Subjects
I teach ELA, but this practice could be adapted to any class. Research fits right in with Social Studies, but it can just be mini-conversations that happen over the course of a unit. Why not have lab-conversations in science? The students could randomly discuss the results of their group’s experiment with the member of another group and reflect on it. Math? I’m at a loss. If you have something, leave a comment below (Sorry Math people, but I have trouble counting to six when I need to pass out papers to students in a row).
I want to end the post with this thought. TPS is a fine strategy. I’m not putting it down. And there are plenty of people who think it’s great (see Cult of Pedagogy’s Podcast about it here). It just doesn’t work for me because I find it too artificial, and students have found holes that I don’t want to spend energy plugging. Also, it doesn’t hold students accountable unless you add assignments, and does not prevent students from finding the same partner again and again and again. Using The Ongoing Conversation Tracker, for me, has solved all the pain points I experienced with TPS.
What other ideas do you have for taking the Ongoing Conversation Tracker to new territory?
Leave a comment below.
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