This is my second of three posts about “common opportunities” to make good classrooms more rigorous. Yesterday I wrote about making it clear to students how you want to them to participate. Today’s post is on the idea of replacing times when we ask students to “agree or disagree” with an answer a classmate has given with more nuanced prompts.
Asking a student to agree or disagree with what a peer has said in class has some clear benefits. For example, it causes students to respond to each others’ ideas directly and, ideally, to link their comments into a discussion- to connect their comments. That’s a good thing. Over time, this can become a habit and yield a culture of peer to peer listening, which is very important. Most teachers think of “talking” as the crux of class participation but listening is at least as important- good discussions require it. That’s probably why teachers like to ask students to agree or disagree so much. The challenge is that using agree/disagree has limitations- fortunately they’re limitations that can easily be overcome.
One challenge is that teachers can sometimes use a phrase like “Do you agree with Marcus?” as a tip- they are more likely to use it when the original student is wrong (or right). Thus it gives the answer away and reduces rigor unless you are roughly as likely to use it when students are right and when they are wrong.
But the biggest limitation, at least to me, is that asking students to agree or disagree gives students only two choices, both of which socialize them to take sides and judge rather than reflect on a previous idea. There are other prompts a teacher could use that give more nuance and more options to students and that push them to think less about taking sides and more about understanding the statement that’s been made.
So typically a teacher might ask, “How is Wilbur feeling right now?” Charles might say, “He’s afraid,” and the teacher then might ask another child, “Carmen, do you agree or disagree?”
Here’s where a small upgrade makes a big difference. Replacing “Carmen, do you agree or disagree?” with:
- “Carmen, can you develop that?” or
- “Carmen, how do you evaluate that?” or
- “Carmen, can you build on that answer? or–if you do want kids to “take a stand” merely saying:
- “Evaluate please… Carmen.”
Now Carmen isn’t locked in on whether Charles is right or wrong but can engage in any number of ways. She can extend his answer, ask a question about it, agree with only part of it, provide evidence, etc. You get the benefit of students responding to one another but in ways that give you more nuanced point of view than agree/disagree.
If you asked me to choose one single prompt to use in place of agree-disagree, I would go with “Develop.” You can always ask a student to develop a peer’s answer and the prompt suggests refinement but allows that to happen in a variety of ways.