Hands Down: Fifteen Techniques that Ignite Total Participation

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You know the drill all too well, I’m sure: you pose a question, and the same hands always rocket up into the air. The same learners are ready to respond, prompt after prompt, while others remain reticent. It isn’t that they don’t have answers or are incapable of contributing, it’s that they choose not to. Some are anxious to share in front of a large group. Others worry that their responses may be wrong. For some, participating in class has very real social consequences too.

The solution? Quit calling on volunteers. Tell your kids to keep their hands down. Forever.

When you employ total participation techniques, every learner shares their response to every question posed and every challenge offered. This becomes a consistent expectation, allowing teachers to check for understanding while inspiring higher levels of engagement.

Know that ensuring total participation isn’t enough, though. Once you’ve achieved it, you have to walk the room, peer over shoulders, provide feedback, and bounce student responses out to the group as a whole in order to forward the learning. Interested in giving this a try? Consider some of these techniques.

Quick Approaches to Total Participation:

1. Numbered heads together

Given a class of thirty students, assign each student a number (1-15). Pose a question or challenge, and invite learners to put their heads together with the partner who has the same number. For triads, use numbers 1-10. Adapt as needed, depending on the size of the class and the group size you wish to create.

2. Think, ink, pair, share

Pitch a prompt, provide learners enough wait time to reflect on it, and then ask them to jot their response on paper. Pair them up with a partner to share.

3. Thumbs up

Pose a question and tell students to put their thumb up when they have a potential answer. Let them know that you won’t be calling on anyone until all thumbs are up. If some are reticent after ample wait time has been provided, ask learners to put their thumbs down and turn and talk to one another so that all are able to respond.

4. Sticking points

Provide each learner a sticky note, offer a prompt or a challenge, and ask them to stick their response to a group display. Alternatively, invite learners to use their notes to craft powerful prompts or challenges that could forward the learning of the group. Ask them to stick their contributions to a group display, and then invite the group to sort and rank what is shared. Allow learners to lead next steps based on the ideas shared.

5. Sketch, then stretch

Ask each learner to doodle the most important details gleaned from a learning experience. Then, ask them to exchange and stretch their partner’s sketch by adding details.

Create Table Tool Kits:

Place small baskets of the following tools at the center of group tables. Learners will grab them quickly and use them to share their thinking, their work, and the conclusions they are reaching.

6. Small white boards, dry erase markers, and erasers

Too expensive? Try laminating tag board and pick up some dollar store stretchy gloves or socks. They make great erasers!

7. Stoplight tents or cups

Green, yellow, and red cups help teachers quickly understand the degree to which a group is able to work independently. You can laminate colored paper and make tents that work just as well.

8. Response cards

Learners hold up these cards to share their thinking. Include sets of cards that reveal degrees of agreement, truth or falsehood, or levels frustration.

9. Laminated graphic organizers

Challenge learners to organize and share their thinking mid-lesson.

10. Raffle ticket talk

Each learner takes 3-5 tickets (your mileage may vary) at the start of a lesson. They place their names on the back. Each time they offer a valid contribution, they place one of their tickets in a pile at the center of the group. The goal is to give up all tickets by the end of class.

Total Participation on the Move

11. Line ups

Learners stand up and form two parallel lines. They turn to face their partner and together, they discuss a prompt or tackle a challenge. Teachers may ask the student at the front of one line to move to the end and the entire line can shift in order to create new partnerships.

12. Random sample summaries

Provide all learners with an empty box grid graphic organizer (I like to use six boxes stacked 3×2). Invite them to randomly select and partner with peers. They must capture that peer’s summary of the day’s learning in one of the top boxes. Then, they must repeat the process with two other peers and place their summaries in the remaining two top boxes. The boxes in the bottom column can be used to stretch the summaries, question what peers shared, or even notice connections or deviations between the summaries provided.

13. Four cornered claims

Place one sign in each of the four corners of your classroom: agree, disagree, uncertain, unclear. Acquaint learners with a thinker who has a strong opinion on a controversial topic. Then, invite them to head to the corner that best reflects their relationship with that thinker’s opinion. Do they agree with the author? Disagree? Are they still uncertain? Are they unclear about the topic or the author’s stance? Once they arrive to their chosen corner, they will work with others in that group to explore evidence, prepare a claim, and address counterclaims. Those that are uncertain or unclear will work to arrive at a position by reviewing the original piece, exploring additional evidence, and pushing each others’ thinking. They may join the group that agrees or disagrees if this becomes appropriate.

14. Gamestorming

When learners Gamestorm, they’re typically out of their seats and on their feet generating abundant ideas as they move through high-paced protocols that require everyone’s participation. Movement helps many learners think best.

15. Charting a course

Place critical questions on charts around the room. Form pairs, triads, or teams, and challenge learners to visit each question, formulate a response, and post their thinking on the chart. When all teams have had a chance to respond, invite them to rank the questions by levels of difficulty, importance, or influence on the understanding of the topic as a whole.

Do you have a tried and true strategy for engaging a total response from all learners? I hope you’ll share your ideas in the comments below. I may craft a follow up post to this one if we can grow a wider collection of techniques.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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