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Supercharging Think, Pair, Share
How to make a common classroom practice even more effective
I hope you are well.
This week we are going to take a look at a common classroom practice - Think, Pair, Share - and consider how we can make it even more powerful.
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Part 1: What is Think, Pair, Share?
Surprise, surprise, there are three components to Think, Pair, Share:
Think: the teacher asks a question, and gives students an opportunity to think independently about the answer.
Pair: students are asked to turn to their partner to discuss their thoughts.
Share: the teacher calls upon some students to share their answer and thinking with the rest of the class.
Think, Pair, Share is a classic classroom technique. And with good reason. It combines the advantages of independent thought with the benefits of collaboration and whole-class discussion. What is not to love?
Nothing at all. But I think it can be made even more effective.
Part 2: Supercharging Think, Pair, Share
Let's imagine a maths teacher wants to use Think, Pair, Share for the following question:
Here are seven ideas to take Think, Pair, Share to the next level.
1. Give students sufficient time to think individually
A common thing I see in the classrooms I am lucky enough to visit - and I know I did this myself loads! - is the teacher asks a question, and no sooner have they uttered the final syllable, they ask students to turn to their partner to discuss the answer. In other words, they cut short the Think part of Think, Pair, Share.
There are a number of problems with not giving students sufficient time to think independently:
We know from the work of Bjork and others that the act of trying to retrieve knowledge is beneficial as it makes that knowledge more secure and available. With less time to think hard about an answer, students do not enjoy the benefits that such effortful retrieval brings.
Without sufficient time to consider the answer properly, students will often reach for the first thing that comes to mind, hence the accuracy of student responses is lower than it could have been.
Paired discussions that follow a curtailed period of thinking are often dominated by the “quicker” student as their partner arrives at the discussion still wrestling with the question.
Mary Budd-Rowe suggests we should consider 3 seconds to be the absolute minimum time we give our students to think about a question we have asked before calling for a response. For more complex questions, like the one in our example, several more seconds will be needed.
2. Allow students to write their thoughts, working out, and answer on mini-whiteboards
Asking students to write down their thoughts, working out, and answer to all but the simplest recall questions is a good idea generally. It can help students organise their thoughts, reflect on their thinking, and make changes. Writing things down also improves the paired discussion that follows because students do not need to try to remember what they wanted to say whilst also trying to attend to what their partner is saying.
Of course, students could write their thoughts down anywhere. But mini-whiteboards are my go-to. Compared to books, for example, students tend to write bigger, there is the ability to edit, and they are more portable.
So, during the Think stage, we could ask students to work out the area of the rectangle on their mini-whiteboards:
3. Ask students to show you their boards
It is a good idea to get a sense of what students know before they have the opportunity to collaborate. Eliciting such information after the Think stage shows us what students know on their own, serving as a baseline before we embark upon the Pair and Share stages.
We could call for volunteers, or we could Cold Call individual students. But better, we could see responses from all students by using a tool of mass participation. No prizes for guessing my favourite here.
We can ask students to hover their mini-whiteboards face-down when they are ready, and then show us their boards in 3, 2, 1…
For more complex questions like our example, we are unlikely to be able to check the understanding of every student in this way - there is simply too much information to look at. In such circumstances, we can:
Control the flow of information - ask students along the back row to show their mini-whiteboards first, then the middle row, then the front row
Look at the boards of our weakest students first - if they are getting the question correct it is likely that everyone else is
Ask students to do working out on one side of the mini-whiteboard and then write their final answer nice and big on the other side - removing the noise makes it much easier to pick out the final answer in a large group of students
Finally, even if we cannot analyse each and every one of our students’ answers, the fact we ask them to write something down and then see what they have written gives us a check for effort. If students have not written anything, we are aware of this and can follow up to find out why.
4. Mini-whiteboards between pairs
If our mini-whiteboard check reveals all students understand the question, there may be no need for a paired discussion. Instead, we could jump straight to asking students to share their reasoning or offering an explanation ourselves.
But assuming our check for understanding reveals some differences in answers worth delving into, we can instigate the Pair stage of the process.
Again, mini-whiteboards are so useful here. We can ask students to place their mini-whiteboards in between their pair so both can see each other's work.
To make the discussion as fruitful as possible, we can give students a structure to follow:
Look at your partner's board. What is the same, and what is different to yours?
If your boards are different, who is correct?
If your boards are the same, what is the best explanation you can come up with to explain the answer to someone who doesn’t understand it yet?
For more on effective paired discussions, I have a top 5 paired discussion tips video
5. Give students an opportunity to rewrite
I got this idea from maths teacher, Craig Latmir, when I interviewed him about how to plan a maths lesson on my Mr Barton Maths podcast, and I love it!
With the paired discussion complete, we can give students an opportunity to edit their work on their mini-whiteboards. Perhaps they now realise they have made a mistake, left something out, or can add some clarity to their work.
We can make a note of students doing a rewrite, as they will play a key role in what comes next.
6. Ask students to show their boards again
Hover your boards face down when you are ready... okay, 3, 2, 1, show me.
We can pay attention to the boards of any students we noticed doing a rewrite. What type of correction have they made? Is their answer now complete?
7. Warm Call students who did a rewrite
Now it is time for the Share stage.
Previously I would have asked for volunteers or picked a student at random to share their thoughts. But now we have information at our disposal that can make our selection of students more strategic and productive.
We can ask the students we noticed doing a rewrite: what they originally thought the answer was, what they changed it to, and why they made the change. This may reveal a misconception or misunderstanding that we want to discuss explicitly with the class. Even if we have not noticed these students ourselves, we can simply ask: hands-up if you made a change following your paired discussion and go from there. Of course, we need a culture in our classrooms where students are open to sharing their difficulties.
We can use the student’s mini-whiteboard to help illustrate their explanation, either by borrowing it from them and holding it up for the class to see, sticking it under the visualiser, taking a picture and using Jake Gordon's incredible website to get it on the board, or quickly reproducing the student's work ourselves.
We can end Share - and the process itself - by asking students if they have any questions, or if they have a different method or answer that they believe might also be correct, and adding extra clarification and explanation ourselves.
Part 3: What do you think?
So, there you go. Here are the seven ideas to supercharge Think, Pair, Share:
Give students sufficient time to think individually
Allow students to write their thoughts, working out, and answer on mini-whiteboards
Ask students to show you their boards
Mini-whiteboards between pairs
Give students an opportunity to rewrite
Ask students to show their boards again
Warm Call students who did a rewrite
Which of these do you already do?
Are there any of these ideas that feel interesting and you would like to build into your practice?
Let me know in the comments below!
Three final things from Craig
Have you listened to my conversation with Ollie Lovell about curriculum, checking for understanding, sleep and more? There are also videos to use as part of CPD.
My calendar is full up for this academic year, and September/October 2023, but I am now taking bookings for November onwards. So, if you are interested in a workshop, departmental support, or coaching, please check out this page
Have you checked out my Tips for Teachers book, with over 400 ideas to try out the very next time you step into a classroom?
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Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, and have a great week!
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