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Big Rock Number 1: Discussion

What are the Big Rocks for teachers who are building a culture of thinking in their schools and classrooms? If we believe that ‘Learning is a consequence of thinking’ (Ritchhart and Perkins, 2008), what type of learning opportunities might we position front and central during the time students spend with us? Put another way, what type of learning opportunities do we want to make routine? What are the Big Rocks in a culture of thinking?

In my previous post, I identified ‘7 Big Rocks for Educators keen to build a culture of thinking’ in their classrooms.

Let’s start with the first of these Big Rocks: Discussion.

According to Ron Ritchhart from the Project Zero team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, ‘The development of thinking and understanding is fundamentally a social endeavour, taking place in a cultural context and occurring within the constant interplay between the group and the individual. Social situations that provide experience in communicating oneʼs own thinking as well as opportunities to understand othersʼ thinking enhance individual thinking.’

Agreed. Discussion and collaboration can be an incredibly powerful learning experience for children.

But I also think it is easy for discussion to go awry in the classroom. Many’s the time that I’ve asked my students to ‘discuss’ something, only to find that they ‘discuss’ everything else under the sun apart from the thing I’ve just asked them to discuss.

There is nothing that derails discussion, I suspect, quite like asking children to do it.

So . . . how might we make discussion a Big Rock in our classrooms and, in doing so, take another step towards building a culture of thinking? Well – here are three practical tools that might be of use.


This is an incredibly powerful routine for discussion, originally developed by Julian Weissglass and later adapted by Tina Blythe (Ritchhart, Church and Morrison, 2011).

For MicroLabs to work well, it is important that students have something generative and meaty to discuss. For instance, if you’re learning about the industrial revolution, why not ask a question like, “Is Economic profitability more important than human rights?” Or – if you’re exploring the picture book ‘The Red Tree’ with Primary students, what about a question such as “Is hope more powerful than sadness?” Questions like these are grist for the intellectual mill. They inspire cognitive and emotional engagement. They draw children in, rather than push them away. They provide accessible entry points, but also promote deep thinking.

Once we have our generative question, we split children into groups of three. Each child has 2 minutes of uninterrupted time to talk (timings can be changed if you wish). Uninterrupted means uninterrupted. Children can nod or smile, but nothing more than that. Between each 2 minute block is 30 seconds for reflection, when no-one talks. And if a child doesn’t want to talk for the whole 2 minutes, that’s fine . . . once they’ve stopped, the group just sits quietly until the rest of the 2 minutes is up. When everyone’s had a turn, the group moves to a more ‘traditional’ discussion, where they might ask one another to elaborate, make connections between each other’s thinking, or try to capture the essence of the big ideas they’ve explored collectively.

A teacher at one of the schools I’m working with this year has seen some amazing results with this routine. Here’s what she wrote to me. “I must have used MicroLabs about 25 times with my class now. To begin with, I had to explain every step really clearly, but now all I need to say is “Let’s MicroLab this” and they’re off and running. Their discussions are so much richer. And something else interesting has happened. You know how they have to be quiet and listen to each other when they are talking in MicroLabs? I’ve noticed that something about that is rubbing off on how they are with each other the rest of the time. It’s like they’re MicroLabbing even when they’re not doing MicroLabs. They’re listening to each other better, and building on each other’s ideas more effectively. It’s changing how they are with each other in discussions.”

The MicroLabs routine presses for deep listening, connection making, participation, and equity. So often, whole class discussions can be dominated by three or four voices, and many students side-line themselves from discussion. MicroLabs has the power to make sure that all participants benefit from discussion, not just some.

Credited to Heather Woodcock, the ‘Leaderless Discussion’ routine was first described by Ron Ritchhart in his 2002 book ‘Intellectual Character’. It’s a routine that enables teachers to step away from the role we often assume as ‘discussion mediator’, and into a role as ‘equal participant’. Whereas traditional ‘whole-class discussions’ might be conducted satisfactorily with children seated in rows, that layout would be challenging in a Leaderless Discussion, since children are required to be alert and attentive to each other, building on each other’s thinking.

Recently, I was privileged to watch a teacher deploying this routine with her Year 12 English class, as part of their exploration of William Blake’s poem, ‘The Sick Rose’.

The rules were simple. Each student came up with a question or big idea they wanted to discuss in relation to the poem, and took turns sharing these with the whole group.

The first student to share asked a question. “Is the rose in this poem a person, or a symbol?” he asked. There was murmur of interest. “The reason I’m asking,” he went on to say, “Is that the word ‘Rose’ is capitalised, suggesting it’s a person, but the references to ‘worms’ and the colour ‘crimson’ suggest it’s a flower. What do you guys think?”

Hands flew up. The speaker chose the first person to respond. This second student shared her thinking. More hands went up. The second student picked the next speaker. This student spoke. Once finished, she picked the next speaker . . . and so on.

After five minutes of lively discussion, the teacher announced “Time’s up”. The discussion stopped, and attention turned back to the question asker. There was a pause. “Thanks for sharing your thoughts,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I’ve learned by listening to that . . . the first thing that struck me was . . .” And off he went into his reflection. Clearly, the students new the routine well. After 5 minutes (or sooner, if nobody else wanted to share), the original question asker would be called upon to talk about what they’d learned after listening in to the discussion.

After this, it was time for another student with another question – and so on.

But here was the best part. Each time students signalled their desire to participate by raising their hands, they used their fingers to indicate how many times they’d already contributed that lesson. When it came to picking the next speaker, students knew that they were required to select the person with the fewest fingers raised, thereby ensuring that the discussion wasn’t dominated by the few.

And through it all, the teacher was simply another equal participant in the discussion. She made a couple of moves every now and again to ensure students adhered to the structure of the routine, but it didn’t feel like she was orchestrating things. Quite the opposite, in fact – it felt like the students were in charge of their own learning, with ideas jumping from one student to next like sparks in a bonfire. The discussion was rich, respectful, purposeful and nuanced. In a Leaderless Discussion, children are encouraged ‘to be more active listeners, to incorporate their own ideas and perspectives with those of their classmates, and to take more initiative and ownership’ (Ritchhart, 2002, p.123).

The Tuning Protocol was originally developed by Joseph McDonald and David Allen for teachers interested in fine tuning their work in the company of colleagues. It’s a powerful protocol for collaboration in professional learning communities.

Recently, I’ve been working with a number of teachers who have had tremendous success adapting the Tuning Protocol to use with their students.

The premise is simple. Imagine you’re a History teacher. Your class have just submitted a bunch of essays in response to this question – ‘Has Australia’s commitment to the Human Rights Declaration been compromised by the White Australia Policy and indigenous issues?’ You’d like your class to reflect together on what an effective response to this question might look like.

You offer your class an opportunity. “Students . . . here’s something I’d like you to consider . . . you’ve all just submitted your essays, and marks will be coming back soon . . . but first, I’d like to offer one of you the opportunity to share your essay with the whole class for tuning. Here’s what that would look like. If you’re interested, I’ll make a copy of your essay for everyone in the class. Then, next lesson, we’ll take the whole period reading and reflecting on your essay. You’ll talk a little about what you were aiming to accomplish, and then we’ll work as a team to provide you with warm and cool feedback. Warm feedback will emphasise the strengths of your essay, and cool feedback will aim to highlight any possible disconnects, gaps or problems, with suggestions on how it might be strengthened. And here’s the thing . . . not only will this be helpful for you, it’ll also be really helpful for the rest of us, because we’re all working on the same thing! So – who wants to have a go?”

Using the tuning protocol like this is a way of fusing discussion with feedback, resulting in rich, purposeful collaboration, where students experience a strong ‘sense of team’.

And what’s to stop us using this protocol in English? Or in Maths, after students have all just completed a test? Or in Food Technology, after we’ve all baked cakes, and we’ve sampled one student’s product?


So, in summary, there are three strategies teachers might employ to help enrich discussion and put it front and central in our classrooms. When we make highly effective discussion a Big Rock in our practice, we go a long way towards building a rich culture of thinking in our schools and classrooms.

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