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Unique Pair, Small Group Teaching Strategies

Jordan Catapano

We want our students to collaborate, but sometimes we rely on the same old types of teaching strategies and interactions that just don’t do it for us anymore. Some classic collaborative teaching strategies – such as Think-Pair-Share and Jigsaw discussions – are effectively and worthwhile. But maybe it’s time to stretch the ways you use student interactions to push them to think more critically and collaborative more deeply. If you’re looking to spice up your student discussions, teaching strategies, and activities, consider some of these crafty variations!

Puppet and Master Teaching Strategies

After randomly assigning students to pairs, ask them to determine which of them is better at or more knowledgeable on the subject matter. This person will be the “Puppet.” The other student will be the “Master.” Just like real puppets and masters, the puppet cannot speak and can only do what the master says.

Once the roles have been determined, pairs should begin on the task provided. The task, for example, might be to solve a math problem or answer questions related to a reading. The puppet is the one who physically does the actual task, but the master tells the puppet what to write. After a period of time given to complete a portion of the task, the puppet is then given permission to ask a guiding question, meant to help the master consider if their instructions have been accurate or not.

Why does this work? Often in pairs, the more talented of the two students takes the lead. The puppet/master format silences the more advanced student and forces the other to take the lead role. However, the puppet can use questions to guide the thinking of his/her partner, therefore collaboratively completing the task and teaching a peer.

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Making Judgments

Students are more likely to get engaged in a discussion when they have the ability to offer their original insights and opinions. When students get to make their own judgments, they have more ownership over the direction of the conversation and feel like they have permission to share their authentic thinking.

Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephan Preskill share in their book “Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for University Teachers,” “The best discussions are those in which students make judgments regarding the relative merits, relevance, or usefulness of an aspect of the lecture.” This means that we are more likely to get students sharing thoughts with one another when they have the chance to critique, disagree with, or form an opinion about the topic. They recommend asking questions like: “What’s the most contentious statement you’ve heard so far in the lecture today?” or “What’s the most unsupported assertion you’ve heard in the lecture today?” 

Why does this work? When you give student groups permission to share their real thinking with one another and offering original judgments, they are more likely to feel liberated to engage without feeling like there is a right or wrong answer. Asking something as simple as, “What’s something you don’t quite agree with yet?” or “What’s something that needs more explanation?” offers students a real opportunity to authentic share in a productive way that leads to more discussion, insights, and questions.

Chainsaw Rotation

Have students organize themselves into an inner and outer circle, each student paired with and facing a student from the other circle. Ask them a short question or give them a simple task to complete together. After a short period of time, have the students in the outer circle rotate one person to the right, then pose a new question or task and have them repeat the process.

This is good for students to complete relatively simple tasks with one another and gives them an opportunity to have a rapid-fire, wide-ranging set of interactions with others. The Chainsaw Rotation allows students to survey one another, steadily build off of others’ ideas, or get to know a range of classmate’s opinions on a set of topics. It’s important that each stage of interactions is different, so that students are doing more than merely repeating themselves over and over again to new partners.

Why does this work? When students work in pairs, there is nowhere to hide – they each have to contribute to the conversation to make it a conversation. This is especially true if students are assigned to come away from each interaction with a specific bit of information from their partner. The rapidity of interactions also helps to maintain student engagement, as they aren’t bogged down in a lengthy one-on-one awkward conversation but rather get to renew interest with each new interaction and task.

Circle of Voices

Students should be in small groups of about four or five. Then, after they are posed a question or problem, each student should be allotted a period of time in which they are permitted to speak without interruption. While one student is speaking, all others should be listening or recording notes. After time elapses, the next student in the group is given the same opportunity to speak. Only after everyone has had their allotted time to share can the small group engage in collaborative conversation based on what each individual shared.

Why does this work? Often small groups interact in more conversational ways, where students briefly state their thought before the next person builds off of it. Circle of Voices reverses this by giving students an opportunity to openly share their ideas, perspectives, reasoning, and questions more thoroughly. This helps students develop a more thorough way of explaining their thinking, and it helps them exercise their powers of patient listening.

Breakout EDU

Students should be arranged in groups of 3-5, then given a set period of time to solve a “Breakout EDU” challenge. This challenge involves them being given a box with multiple locks on it. Students are provided with resources and clues that help them break the locks off one at a time. These puzzles should be directly related to the content of your class, and student groups should be able to apply the knowledge and skills they’ve been working on to complete the breakout challenge.

This is similar to the “Escape room” concept in which participants work together to solve puzzles allowing them to escape from a locked room. Instead of breaking out, students will break into the box to discover a prize or … if you’re feeling a teensy malicious … smaller boxes with locks on them too.

Why does this work? Instead of just being given a test or a list of questions to answer, students are grouped together to creatively apply the course content. The puzzles should be designed to offer enough challenge that they have to think, but if they demonstrate competence with the course material then they should be able to complete the challenges.

Convince a Peer

Ask a question that has only two possible answers, and have students move to the side of the room you’ve designated as the place that represents their answer. Once students move to one side of the room or the other that represents their answer, have them look across the room and see who disagrees with them. Then form even groups of students from both sides and tell them to “Convince their peer that they’re right.” Allow students a set period of time to share their reasoning and engage in initial debate with one another.

After groups discuss, ask the same question again and allow students the chance to go to the side of the room that represents their answer now. Who changed sides? Who stayed where they’re at? What are the reasons that were convincing or not for a given answer?

Why does this work? Instead of students giving answers to a teacher or being told they are right or wrong, students first have a chance to explain their thinking and hear the thinking of others. The rightness or wrongness of a students’ answer isn’t the priority, but rather the students’ thinking and discussion takes center stage.

Which discussion and activity methods do you like above? What teaching strategies would you add to this list? Give our TeachHUB community your suggestions in the comments below!


Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.