Think Pair Share is a powerful and important technique that should probably play a key role in every teacher’s repertoire. It’s the key to giving every student the opportunity to rehearse their ideas, practise explaining and to engage in productive talk using the key vocabulary relevant to the topic. I’ve written about it before in various contexts, starting with this early post which provides the rationale:
The ‘Washing Hands’ of Learning: Think Pair Share
A blog about something really obvious but worth spelling out. After 25 years of teaching, I’ve been through a fair amount of dodgy INSET/CPD. As a result…
More recently, we’ve included the technique in Walkthrus Volume 1 and it is certainly one of the most common techniques for schools to explore in their CPD programmes.
We envisage teachers using the technique as part of a wider repertoire:
The Dynamics of Questioning….agile, responsive, nimble, purposeful.
Increasingly I find that it’s important and useful to explore teaching techniques through the twin-tracks of a) defining specific techniques so they are deployed with precision…
The key thing is to be able to switch to a Think Pair Share activity whenever you want to, responsively. It’s important, therefore, to have a well-established routine for yourself and for the students, so that everyone knows what to do and what to expect.
In this post, we’re going to examine some of the finer details of each step in our 5-step Walkthru.
Establish talk partners for every student.
Purpose: If you want to use pair talk regularly, you want students to engage with minimum fuss and hassle. In fact, you want them to be comfortable with it; it should feel absolutely routine; a positive, enjoyable part of the learning process and not a big palaver. Students should be able to exchange ideas more or less equally which has implications for who you pair with who.
Details: It helps to have well-established talk partners for each student so that, any time you choose to engage students in pair talk, they know the routines and get stuck in on cue. The first time you meet a class, take time to establish a good set of working pairs, taking account of their relative confidence and prior knowledge. There are no ideal combinations but you need to avoid pairings where one person is significantly dominant over the other (doing most of the thinking and talking) or where they both have such low confidence that they struggle to hold a meaningful exchange.
Don’t just assume that students can self-organise into pairs – very often this needs explicit reinforcement – and adapt from lesson to lesson where students are absent or if you want to mix pairings up a bit. Check that no student is left isolated and that pairs keep in their pairs without drifting into larger groups, thereby reducing each individual student’s contribution.
Set the question with a goal and a timeframe
Purpose: Unless the pair talk has a structure, students often either find it hard to get started or they drift from the focus of the learning in hand. Simply saying ‘have a discussion about X’ can be far too open-ended for many students. A structured question acts as a form of scaffold and has a strong focusing effect on the ensuing pair talk. Similarly, in the absence of a timeframe, students can run out of steam, ending their discussion prematurely without getting into any detail or they waste time and don’t complete the task in time to respond.
Details: Design pair-talk questions that have a clear structure. Examples might include:
- Think of three key factors that affect X and then rank them in order of importance..
- Identify two advantages and two disadvantages of…
- Explain the difference between X and Y giving an example of each..
- Think of three words that describe the character….
- Identify which answer from those shown is correct/the best…
- Explain the process in four or five key stages; get ready to talk them through..
- Think of two key opposing arguments for X..
This kind of precision helps students to gauge their progress; it keeps them thinking and talking until they have a full answer; it helps them structure their answer if and when called upon. Mostly it keep them focused on the thinking without drifting.
Announce the timeframe in advance. It’s a useful discipline to use a visible timer to help the teacher and students to manage the time-monitoring needed to plan pace and depth within the pair talk. It’s not essential of course but if you don’t use a timer, keep the discussion length under review as they progress.. if students are flagging, call time and bring students in for the sharing.
Build in thinking time.
Purpose: The Think in Think, Pair, Share is really important – but is actually often cut short or missed out entirely. If all students are to engage in generative thinking processes, exploring their schema for the material, rehearsing explanations and generating ideas – then they need time to do this before they are overwhelmed by their partner’s ideas. Students are unlikely to engineer their own thinking time so teachers need to deliberately instigate a thinking phase before moving on to the pair share phase.
Details: After explaining the question and the timeframe, ask students to Think, giving them say 30 seconds of silent thinking time. Of course you can’t be sure every student is thinking at this moment – but once the routines are established, students learn that this phase will lead into the pair discussion and it is therefore useful to them to use the time they are given productively. The aim is to create conditions such that, once students turn to talk, they have already generated ideas to share – but this requires time for thinking to be built in. Ideally, you yourself are also silent… you’re modelling it, allowing a lush, pensive silence to permeate the room.
So, the routine is:
- State the question: ‘think of three factors ……’
- Initiate thinking time: ‘on your own, 30 seconds thinking time….Go.’
- And then after enough time has passed, initiate the share: ‘Now turn to your partner and share’.
In a lesson where students are engaging in multiple short paired discussions on the same theme, you may feel that dedicated solo think time is not always needed every time – because, in the flow of the instructional sequence, students may have already had time to think. It’s also possible for 30 seconds to be too long.. so you have to gauge that according to how well students are responding.
Circulate to listen as pairs are talking.
Purpose: Once students are talking, sharing their ideas, it’s powerful to use the opportunity to listen in to hear the type of things they are saying so that you can reinforce your expectations around the nature of the response, offer support to specific students and gauge the success of the thinking process as students exchange their ideas. If you don’t circulate to listen, you are then relying much more heavily on the few responses you sample in the final step.
Details: Set students talking with the ‘Share’ cue. Reinforce the idea that their goal is to hear each other’s ideas and then to agree on a common set – perhaps choosing the best three of their total set of ideas, if asked for ‘three things’.
Once they’ve engaged, busily move among them. It’s useful to reinforce the expectation that you will be cold calling them afterwards – so they engage fully, knowing that they each individually might be asked to share their discussion with the class. This form of accountability helps students to sustain the attention needed to properly explore the ideas without drifting off topic in the discussion phase.
- You are partly monitoring – checking they’re on task, showing an interest in what they’re saying.
- You are partly listening in to hear some specific responses – all good information to inform your next steps, including highlighting some good ideas and some overheard misconceptions.
- You have time to approach some students to support them with the process, perhaps giving them a confidence boost, suggesting that some of their ideas would be good to share with the class.
Use Cold Call to sample pairs’ responses.
Purpose: There are two main purposes:
- You are reinforcing your expectations around engagement and attention; students will form the habit of participating in the pair-share if they learn that, over time, they might well be called to share their thoughts. If you only asked for volunteers, students can choose to opt out and for some this will weaken their engagement as they’ll lose a key incentive to rehearse their ideas.
- You are sampling responses in order to create some common, shared set of ideas that relate to the question, providing information to you as teacher about what to re-teach if needed and allowing students to hear alternative ideas to their own, supporting them in the process of formulating their understanding of what a high quality response might look like.
Call the class back to listening mode using your routine ‘signal, pause, insist’ method. Mine is to raise my hand and say ‘3,2,1 and…..everyone listening….. thank you’.
Scan the class and select a student to reply. ‘OK… Daisy, let’s hear from you… what were your thoughts?’
From here, you run the same routines as described in the Cold Calling process. You follow up each response with a further question to the same student to deepen or extend their response and then you select more students to respond. ‘And Abdi, what were you and Joanna discussing.?”. With each successive response, you can compare to the previous ones looking for similarities and differences to deepen the shared understanding of the ideas in hand.
Some students will try to defer to their partner or, conversely butt in to speak for their partner… don’t let them. Reinforce the idea that it is the person you selected who you’d like to represent the pair; this is vital in keeping everyone fully involved in this and each subsequent discussion.
Where you supported a less confident student and told them their ideas were good, bring them into the discussion. ‘Michael, you had a superb idea, do you want to tell everyone what you were saying to Jenny?’ Knowing in advance that his idea is good, gives shy Michael the confidence to share his thoughts, bringing him into the circle. Teaching Assistants can play a key role in flagging when the students they are supporting are ready to share their ideas.
Two further details:
Hands up for ideas: After a number of responses, it’s still possible that one or more students in the room have some great ideas that haven’t yet been heard. So, after hearing 3 or 4 responses from students you have cold-called, you can say ‘Now, hands up if you’ve got any other ideas we haven’t heard yet’. This allows those ideas to surface which can be a very useful contribution. The hands-up responses follow after the cold-called responses so that you get the best of both: every student is focused and ready to engage and individuals with good ideas can share them voluntarily.
Consolidate the key points: With all these ideas floated verbally, it can be overwhelming to some students. The ideas are ephemeral and transient… drifting in the air.. but not yet solidified. So.. take time to pull things together. Sum up the discussion with a list of key points that you can restate verbally or, better still, write on the board or via a visualiser. Try to organise the ideas into something visually coherent that reinforces the meaning rather than create a messy board of scattered ideas.
The written summary allows students to consider the static information, checking against their own understanding and discussion. Without this kind of consolidation, typically the more confident knowledgable students can gain a lot more from the process than the others. Try to leave everyone feeling secure in their knowledge of the material being discussed.
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