What Do We Mean When We Ask Learners to Think?

What Do We Mean When We Ask Learners to Think?In working on some new designs for professional learning, I’ve been pushing myself to think about new strategies to engage both learners and facilitators – ways to get both parties thinking deeper, engaging more and sharing further with each other with a variety of talk patterns. This thinking took me back to a post by James Anderson in The Thoughtful Teacher. Anderson pushes us to get specific with what we are asking learners to do when we ask them to “think.” Because I am working on learning targets and success criteria, along with activating learners as a support for themselves and their peers, I am a bit stuck on the specific idea now.

Using talk partners is a basic formative assessment strategy. Using the strategy well and in alignment with our targets and success criteria has so many benefits. First, the use of talk partners allows all students to have a voice in the room. They can experiment or test their thinking with one other person before (or instead of) sharing it with the whole class. Talk partners help develop that culture of learning in a classroom–everyone has something to say and needs a say place to say it. Learning to take risks is something that evolves. We don’t jump from a helicopter to downhill skill the first time we go skiing. Sharing an idea or answer in front of the class may be something some of our students need to build up to doing.

Anderson gave some great examples for prompts to consider when using “think-pair-share”–changing the “think” to be more specific.

  • Summarize-pair-share
  • Question-pair-share
  • Solve-pair-share
  • Generate an opinion-pair-share
  • Predict-pair-share

Connecting the kind of thinking we want students to do with the learning targets or lesson goals–the verb–helps us better align the activity or task we pose for the students. Students gain confidence and clarity when expressing and exploring ideas in a paired situation. This formative assessment strategy can be used at any point during instruction to allow students to process their own learning experience. A wide variety of options for talk partners exist: shoulder, elbow, behind, in front, random pair, stand up-hand up-pair up, eyeball, clock, etc. You get the idea, and you have probably used several of these.

Teaching students to use talk partners effectively makes the strategy even more effective itself. Students might come to consider talk partners as someone who helps them with their work, helps them make learning more clear, listens, share ideas, and provides feedback. By pausing in our instruction to activate students to think in specific ways we are building their metacognitive skills and their self-efficacy. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

We’d love to hear ideas about how you use think-pair-share or talk partners in your classroom.

Blog post

Helping students grow

Students continue to rebound from pandemic school closures. NWEA® and Learning Heroes experts talk about how best to support them here on our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow.

See the post


Put the science of reading into action

The science of reading is not a buzzword. It’s the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction. We can help you make it part of your practice.

Get the guide


Support teachers with PL

High-quality professional learning can help teachers feel invested—and supported—in their work.

Read the article