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Think, pair, share in the MFL classroom

This blog was prompted by a section in Tom Sherrington’s excellent book The Learning Rainforest. Tom writes about the revelation he experienced when someone explained the “think, pair, share” technique when interacting with a class. In case you are not familiar with it, this is when you ask a question and, instead of asking for hands up or ‘cold calling’ (to use Doug Lemov’s term), you tell the class to discuss the answer with a partner before eliciting a response.

To put the technique in context Tom reminds us of the disadvantages of traditional hands up questioning. They are worth revisiting:

1. Only one pupil can answer at a time.
2. The answer can be given before others have had time to work it out.
3. Pupils can opt out of answering and hide.
4. More timid students are intimidated when there is a ‘forest of hands up’.
5. When no one raises a hand the teacher doesn’t know if the class doesn’t know the answer or is just reluctant to offer a response.
6. H ads up can encourage closed questioning. ( You want people to answer so ask easier questions.)
7. The same students always put up their hands and a pattern is established for other lessons.

Incidentally, the main advantage of no hands-up questioning (cold calling) is that students cannot hide and you get a clearer idea of whether the whole class has understood. (Note, in passing, that this is not the same as random, ‘lollystick’ questioning, which is inferior, in my view, since it takes the way the teacher’s skill in matching questions to specific pupils.)*

Think, pair, share has a lot going for it. Every student is obliged to take part. In language lessons though, I would argue that it has limitations.

Where some conceptual thinking is needed it makes sense. For example, let’s say you wanted to ask a class to explain a grammatical rule after the students have seen some examples of a pattern in the input. Some time to think, discuss and formulate an answer is useful. Similarly, if you were studying a section of text and asked a question about its content, particularly at higher levels, time for thought and brief discussion/comparison of responses would be useful before answers are elicited.

On the other hand, what about questions used in the language teacher’s way, those somewhat artificial ‘display questions’ like “Where is the book?” “ Is Jack a butcher or a baker?” or “What time did Pauline arrive at the beach?”?

In this case I would argue that to encourage quick reactions, multiple repetitions and a fast pace, then hands up or no hands up makes more sense. Indeed, despite the obvious disadvantages of hands up mentioned above, we shouldn’t ignore its advantages. I would mention these:

1. The ablest students are enthused by the opportunity to shine and please the teacher.
2. Less confident students get to hear other good models of listening input.
3. The teacher gets at least some idea of how many students are keeping up.
4. The pace of a lesson is maintained if the questioning technique is good.
5. Even when students show their enthusiasm by raising a hand, you can always choose to ask someone else, killing two birds with one stone, as it were.
6. Some pupils will find no hands up questioning frustratingly slow and may lose interest.

Don’t forget that whole class questioning in MFL lessons is as much, if not more, about modelling listening as developing oral fluency. It’s a particular type of questioning often unlike that used in other subjects, with the aim of developing linguistic skill rather than the understanding of concepts. It is frequently fast, repetitive and choral.

Think, pair, share is, of course, just one way of handling classroom questioning. Good teachers often use a mix of strategies: hands up, hands down, lolly sticks, cold calling, ‘turn and talk’, mini-whiteboards, write the answer then share, and no doubt other variations.

To finish let me summarise Tom Sherrington’s further points about the merits of think, pair, share:

1. It’s easier for pairs to say “ We don’t get it” rather than “ I don’t get it”.
2. Every student gets the chance to answer a question in the safety of their paired bubble.
3. Two heads may be better than one. Pairs may debate the answer and consider it in different ways.
4. When the teacher elicits answers, pairs have had the chance to rehearse them. (I would add that this repetition of a pre-rehearsed answer may help it be remembered later.)

So maybe this is a technique you are already very familiar with or, alternatively, could add to your repertoire. “ Okay, you’ve got two minutes to work out the rule and report back... off you go!” Or “ What do think are the key points to remember when doing GCSE photo cards? One minute... discuss.” Or “ What camera techniques did you notice being used in that film clip? Take a few minutes to discuss before I ask you for your ideas.”

Tom Sherrington’s book The Learning Rainforest (2017) is published by John Catt Educational and costs just over £11, which is excellent value. I think it’s relevant and interesting for all teachers and leaders.

* Some teachers confess that when they select a lollystick with a child’s name on, they actually choose a different child. This makes sense! Students think it’s random but it isn’t. Smart pupils will no doubt figure this out!



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