Colored Balls, Bank Shots and Creating Meaningful Classroom Discussions

Colored Balls, Bank Shots and Creating Meaningful Classroom Discussions Whenever anyone asks if I play golf, I say that if erupting volcanoes and colored balls are involved I do much better. While I took golf in college and have taken lessons just a couple of years ago, my preference (and skills) are for the miniature golf course. You know I am going somewhere assessment-related with this analogy, so just hang in there.

For those of you who don’t have a personal experience with miniature golf, let me provide some quick background. This offshoot of golf focuses on only the putting aspect of the parent game. It is usually played on a 9-hole course where the holes are short (about 10 yards from tee to cup), surfaces are astro-turf or concrete, and involve a geometric layout with obstacles often requiring bank shots. While there are lots of tips for putting in regular golf, mini-golf is more about bank shots made with control. Now we might typically associate bank shots more with pool or basketball than golf, but that is one of the fun aspects of mini-golf and the one I want us to connect to today.

Bank Shots

Bank shots involve a nice mix of geometry and physics. In all three sports it is a shot that rebounds off something, a ball or rail in billiards; the backboard in basketball; and just about anything in front of it in mini-golf. This bank shot is a lot like a teacher asking a question (a good, higher-order question) during class. Let’s think about it for a moment in the context of discussion questions.

The teacher poses a question (a well-developed one) to elicit evidence of learning by starting a discussion where he anticipates most, if not all, students will have something to say about the topic. Discussion questions serve two primary purposes:

  1. To get students to explain their thinking
  2. To raise the cognitive level of the activity

The “bank shot” aspect comes in when one student responds initially and then the teacher tries to get another to respond. When students have limited experience with real discussion getting these bank shots to go somewhere else can be a challenge and the teacher needs to be prepared.

Get the Discussion Started

In mini-golf a bank shot might go many places: the hole (or cup), a hill, a dip, some kind of moving obstacle, around a corner – you get the picture. Guess what? The same things happen when first trying to get discussions started in a classroom. Because discussion questions are higher-order, students’ first responses may not reveal all the thinking they have done or are capable of—so a follow-up question or two may be needed such as: “Why?” or “Explain your answer” or “How does that compare with what was said?” And if students have little experience with this strategy, getting them to talk with each other rather than to you may take some additional strategies and work.

As you work on getting more out of your initial “bank shots” with discussion questions, you may want to consider trying a couple of these strategies:

  • Partner buzz – let students “turn and talk” for 1-2 minutes with their neighbor to get their thinking started before opening the discussion to the entire classroom. This builds a safety net where everyone talks and shares before one starts the whole group discussion.
  • Basketball discussion – start by using some safe object (ball of yarn) that can be passed from speaker to speaker to engage more and different students in the discussion.
  • Poll – take a quick poll and use the data to start the discussion
  • Keep the Question Going – asking students to respond to the first student’s comments is one way to start the discussion. Simple prompts like do you agree or disagree and why can be ways to do this.

Be Prepared

Teachers also have to be prepared for the hills, dips, corners and obstacles. Wait time is your friend, along with having “systems” established to help move the discussion along. Feelings of trust and safety are important parts of the classroom culture of learning that foster meaningful discussions. Remember, wait time happens after the questions and after the response. What systems or processes have you used in your class to set up opportunities for real discussion? What might you adjust to make this happen more often?