17 July 2012

The ‘Washing Hands’ of Learning: Think Pair Share

Filed in Teaching and Learning

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 I am something of a ‘visiting speaker’ sceptic. However, it hasn’t all been bad; far from it. Some…

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 I am something of a ‘visiting speaker’ sceptic. However, it hasn’t all been bad; far from it. Some ideas have been very influential such as the ideas behind CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education) developed at Kings in the 1990s; also the principles of formative assessment that have trickled into our collective consciousness as teachers since ‘Inside the Black Box’.  Whilst some ideas have helped me to frame an overarching philosophy for teaching or have augmented my armoury of teaching tools, there is one simple strategy that has transformed the way I teach every lesson, every day:

Think, Pair, Share.

I used to be a ‘hands up’ merchant just like a lot of people.  Then, at an INSET session about 10 years ago, delivered by a superb trainer from Haringey LA (employed through National Strategies – imagine!) the seed was sown that ‘hands up’ might not be such a great idea.   It is so obvious when you think about it.  In fact it is rather alarming that such a poor and even harmful strategy is still so deeply ingrained in pedagogical practice.  For years I’d fought my way through the forest of hands- “Oo, oo, oo, me, me, me!!!”  OR faced the tumbleweed of deathly silence;  those ‘blood out of stone’ moments when you scan the room desperately looking for someone willing to give you an answer and everyone is staring at the floor. And of course there would often have been kids at the back wishing ‘please, please, don’t ask me, I haven’t got a clue.’

But the solution came:  Every time you ask a question, get the students to think first, then discuss it in pairs before they answer.  Lightening bolt.  This simple strategy has transformed how I teach – and helped develop an entirely new way of thinking about teaching.  I’ve since often referred to this as the ‘washing hands’ of teaching.  This is the hospital analogy where the single simplest act with the greatest impact is to ensure every hospital worker washes their hands after each patient contact; i.e. changing something that you do all the time every day has an enormous impact.

I think it is worth revisiting just why ‘hands up’ is such a poor strategy:

  • Only one person gets to answer at a time so you have no idea what most people are thinking.
  • The answer can be offered before others have had a chance to work it out for themselves.
  • Students can opt out of answering or thinking altogether if they choose to.  They can hide.
  • It is difficult to express confusion or simply to say that you don’t know the answer.
  • In the ‘forest of hands’ scenario, the competitiveness inhibits less confident students (and there are gender-specific behaviours here that can’t be ignored).
  • In the ‘blood out of a stone’ scenario, you can’t tell if students are really stuck or just too unsure of themselves to offer a public answer.
  • Very often ‘Hands up’ goes together with closed questions with very short ‘think time. We are not comfortable with silence –and expect responses within seconds of asking a question.
  • Ingrained patterns of behaviour develop; students who always put a hand up and students who never do.
An everyday hands-up moment..

An everyday hands-up moment..

 So, what changes when you ask routinely, ‘in your pairs, discuss…..’:

  • Crucially, in doing this you are creating a small bubble of security around each pair; a safe space where they can think for a while and say whatever they like. ‘I think X’, ‘No, I think Y’…’I haven’t got a clue’,   ‘I wasn’t really listening’ ‘It is more complicated than that… maybe it is X except when it is Y?’
  • In this bubble it is safe to admit you don’t understand and the pair can pluck up the courage together to report this back.  Easier to say ‘we don’t get it’ rather than ‘I don’t get it’.
  • Every single student can engage in answering the question; they are all generating answers simultaneously – and there is less chance of hiding.  Shy students will speak to their partner; the blood comes out of the stone!  It has an immediate effect.
  • Two heads are better than one.  If the question is a good one, pairs can debate their answer.  They can then rehearse it and feedback to each other..’yes, that sounds good but maybe also say this….’
  • When the teacher brings the class together to hear answers, the students are repeating something they have rehearsed.  It is easy to report back  ‘we thought that maybe it is XYZ’ when you have already thought this through… compared to being put on the spot with a cold question.  It is crucial in the report-back phase to ask selected pairs directly to share their discussion; it means everyone needs to be prepared to report back in case they are asked. Using a building process is also key here – anything to add, to challenge, any better or different answers?  And so on.  (It is not always time-efficient to get each pair to share their answer.)

I could go on…. it is just such a powerful change.  Still now, it is by far the most common piece of feedback I give after lesson observations: ‘If you had asked them to discuss in pairs, the learning would have been better’.  The question is, why do teachers still ask for hands up or accept it when students take them down the ‘hands up’ cul-de-sac? What are the barriers to adopting ‘in your pairs’ as the default mode of questioning?

  •  For some it is about behaviour management.  To repeatedly stop and start a class –full of kids talking is more difficult than keeping a lid on them and taking one answer at a time.  Good stop-start strategies need to be developed and rehearsed.
  • It can be overwhelming dealing with all the answers that are generated.  After 15 paired discussions – what do you do then?  The key is to encourage active listening and the process of building on previous answers as you sample the responses.  Sampling is valid – and much much better than only taking a couple of cold hands-up responses.
  • Students default to hands-up themselves and have to be trained out of it – which can be a drag. Yes, it can, but it soon works if you ignore students with hands up and get the pair discussion going. If you reward ‘hands up’, that is what you’ll get.
  • It can feel like a sledgehammer to crack a nut if you only want to know ‘what is the capital of Spain ‘or ‘what is 3 x 4’.  Well it is. But is that a good question in the first place?

This is the crux; think-pair-share forces us to ask better questions.  There is room for a few sharp closed questions in a lesson but if we are looking for higher order thinking, answers that model literacy skills as well as content and, generally, are probing to a deeper level of understanding, then ‘hands up’ with closed questioning, is never going to be enough.

Once you are into the groove of routine ‘in your pairs’ questioning, you find yourself asking better questions –it all flows.

So, thank  you to Alison from Haringey for showing me the light! I’ve never looked back….  My hands are clean – are yours!!??

(Thanks to Paul L for providing the illustration…)

No Comments
  • Jude Baker
    Posted at 08:15h, 18 July

    What great advice! Love little nuggets like this that can completely change the way you think about things. I am going to put this into practice right away… I can see the class becoming noisier, but that can be a good thing, maybe I’ll buy an air horn. Thanks for sharing.

    • Boo Spurgeon
      Posted at 12:10h, 10 October

      Standard in PSHE lessons! It’s a great way of working, n gets everyone involved, even those quieties lurking in hope they’re not asked. I use a bell….. Cuts thru noise easily.

    • headmannsview
      Posted at 03:21h, 08 November

      Completely agree with the article. Another interesting by product of hands up is as soon as a child raises their hand they have stopped engaging and are only focused on their question or thoughts. Getting students to note down their thought/question/answer allows them to refocus on the discussion without losing their idea or answer

  • Nina
    Posted at 17:09h, 20 July

    What a nice post! I have one more suggestion: instead of pair, use groups of three, because while two people easily agree upon something, three might create a deeper discussion. Often they need to convince each other about the answer, and that leads to more thinking.

    This pair share is also one step forward the teacher being the facilitator of students’ learning, which is the true model of 21st century learning. Empowering your students to learn makes teaching so much easier and more effective.

  • traidsewgood
    Posted at 13:24h, 13 September

    Amazing. That is totally obvious now.
    We deliver workshops AT schools, repeating lesson plans over and over. We have always used a lot of small group discussions, as they were better for getting groups of students we have never met to be brave enough to talk to us.
    We still had a few hand’s up left in, but we’ve just realised why… we needed better questions! We have just re written the first step in our most popular lesson plan and will be asking a new better ‘think-pair- share’ question from tomorrow onwards.

  • Charlotte
    Posted at 10:05h, 21 September

    Great post, this way everyone get a chance to explore their ideas more fully!

  • Andy Colley (@MrAColley)
    Posted at 14:01h, 23 October

    “But is that a good question in the first place?” That’s the crux of it for me. It’s too easy to ask throwaway questions that only impact superficially on one brain at a time. Think, pair, share forces me to be a more discerning questioner and my learners to engage much more with lessons. I blogged about a few other questioning strategies here if they would be useful? http://mrcolley.com/blog/2010/11/30/who-asks-the-questions-in-your-classroom/

    • Andy Colley (@MrAColley)
      Posted at 09:04h, 30 November

      Just to follow up, the site linked to above has had a malware attack, so please don’t click on the hyperlink. Working on a fix, but I didn’t want your readers to get infected in the meantime.

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  • Lynn
    Posted at 10:03h, 19 January

    There are lots of variations of the ‘hands up’ question and answer session. This article from a tv programme aired in 2010 features a few.
    The six tips at the bottom of the article outline some, but they include the lollipop system and traffic light cups.

  • Tony
    Posted at 00:11h, 22 January

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Think, Pair, Share is a great strategy to share & build knowledge and understanding, but I question is whether this practical to use every time I ask a question in class. Any thoughts?

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      Posted at 00:23h, 22 January

      Tony, there is never an ‘always’ about these things. If a questions requires thinking… everyone needs time to think. If not, as in simple factual recall, just get a random person to answer. I’d still say ‘hands up’ is almost always a bad idea… but making it taboo gets in the way of the spirit of the thinking here. Habits die hard…

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    • headguruteacher
      Posted at 09:54h, 28 April

      Thanks. Glad the post helped.

      • Rachel
        Posted at 13:20h, 13 June

        Just found this and will forward to my trainee teachers as something I regularly pick up on too. The post puts the why and how to change across very well. Thank you

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  • mathstuitioncromer
    Posted at 07:32h, 21 October

    May I venture that paired discussion first can have its draw backs
    Lessons lack pace (always an easy way for a observer to criticise a lesson). Even with groups of 2 dont naively believe that they are discussing your question – human nature etc
    You have the same problem as on hands up
    … there will be pairs who understand, can answer fully etc . What do they do when the thinking time for others is occuring. I’m disappointed that you have made this a black and white issue (pairs good, hands bad). It’s not.
    Finally a sinister thought. There are some schools who would adopt this as a policy.
    Another stick with which to beat the teacher who ever uses hands up

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 11:45h, 21 October

      It’s never black and white. Truth is that pairs is a drop in ocean of hands up. In promoting more think pair share I’m merely seeking to make a few dents in the ubiquity of hands up with all its flaws. I can’t relate to the sinister thought.

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  • Leanne
    Posted at 00:29h, 23 November

    I’d love to hear about others’ start-stop techniques. Working with little ones, that can sometimes be the most difficult part.

  • Laura
    Posted at 15:52h, 07 March

    What would you do if you wanted to use this strategy, but students do not interact with one another? They are sat in groups, but they do not talk to one another. How can you make students discuss if they won’t?

    • Boo Spurgeon
      Posted at 18:02h, 07 March

      I’ve had occasional grps like that. I’ve used lollipop sticks to randomise. Also, mini whiteboards as security for those who are nervous. And more structured questions sometimes. I think because it was a standard strategy in PSHE the kids got used to it. I did lots of games to warm them up and just for fun and to up the energy. They they don’t realise they’re suddenly talking more….. time and persistence, and not being afraid of silence.

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