Teach Students to Be Pinball Wizards with These 5 Question Hacks

This article is an excerpt from Hacking Questions.

All students must have collaboration skills in order to be competent communicators. These skills include absorbing what is heard, probing, articulating, expressing ideas clearly, and building on others’ thoughts. When well-executed, these skills produce a synergic result. 

Without this set of speaking and listening skills, however, classroom conversations can feel torturous—for you and the students. When the teacher is the hub of questioning and solely responsible for maintaining a discussion, conversation ping-pong occurs.

Ping-ponging gives a false sense of discussion. Even ten exchanges generally result in the teacher contributing ten times, with ten different students contributing once, while the other fifteen to twenty students do not converse at all. Students will not improve their communication techniques by watching their teacher lead most of the discussions in the classroom.

Unlike ping-pong, the traditional arcade game of pinball does not follow a back-and-forth motion. The steel ball bounces all over, triggering flashing lights, buzzers, and bells. Bumpers ricochet, launching that sphere all over the machine. Its movement varies. With a supple wrist, it can even be paused. Contact with the flipper sends it firing back up again. 

Becoming a pinball wizard means maximizing student-to-student talk in your classroom. Achieve this objective by setting up the conditions for pinball talk moves.

1. Start With Surface-Level Questions

Too many teachers and supervising administrators have a false perspective that they should avoid surface-level questions. Without general information about a topic, though, it is impossible to debate, defend, compare/contrast, or evaluate it. In the absence of experience or knowledge, the students lack true answers, and they quickly exhaust the conversation. Either heavy scaffolding turns into spoon-feeding, or the project morphs into an experience that produces a lower level of learning than expected. Students can work their wizardry when they have tools like academic vocabulary, relevant experiences, and resources that support their thinking and learning during their pinball talk.

2. Encourage Active Listening

From the onset of their education, students learn that listening is about what their eyes, ears, mouths, hands, and feet are doing, without a reference to what their brains should be doing. In the absence of explicit guidance about what excellent listeners are thinking, students interpret it as “be quiet and be still.” This is a behavior expectation for being a good audience member not a good listener nor discussion partner.

In order for a class discussion to look like a pinball in action, make sure you’re keeping the emphasis on more than just talk. Ask for feedback, check in with students, and lead discussions that measure how well they’re listening. Active listeners listen to the speaker’s message with the purpose of understanding or connecting to it. If you want a discussion to be engaging, purposeful, and effective, build an atmosphere where quality listening plays a vital role.

3. Let Students Offer Multiple Perspectives 

Argument and debate can be very productive methods of learning. Considering points of view that differ from your own not only deepens your understanding of the topic, but it also opens doors to exploring new ways of thinking. This mindset of inquiry fosters a desire to grow. Entering a conversation with a single viewpoint and a determination to be right is detrimental to everyone’s learning. This often escalates emotions. If emotions overpower the message, the conversation sours and becomes unproductive to learning.

Set the tone for an expansion of thinking to be the purpose of dialogue, rather than being right or wrong. Doing so sustains a pinball structure where students can agree, build on one another, or challenge thoughts without triggering defense mechanisms.

4. Start with ABC

As a transition to using pinball talk moves, start with three basic connecting phrases. Have your students respond to the speaker by using ABC in their discussion.

  • Agree: "I agree with what you said because. . ."
  • Build: "I would like to build on that by adding. . ."
  • Challenge: "I have a challenge to your thinking. . ."

5. Emphasize Social Goals

Rarely is there a lesson plan without a content goal. During portions of class time when students are using their social skills, consider drawing their attention to a specific social goal. It makes sense to highlight speaking and listening skills, but move beyond the obvious and alert students to the social skills that could immediately improve their collaboration time. Use your observations from previous peer interactions to pinpoint the social goal, which could be:

  • Equalizing talk time

  • Encouraging others to share

  • Making it productive, not personal

  • Checking for everyone’s understanding 

  • Probing with questions

  • Asking open-ended questions

  • Using evidence to support your idea

  • Building a process for making decisions when there is a disagreement. 

The more time you spend sharpening students’ speaking and listening skills, the better communicators they will become, and the more pinballing you can do in your classroom. These are truly life skills that will serve your students as they grow older.

Main post image by by William Fortunato from Pexels

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