Build a classroom culture that encourages active listening and a willingness to consider others' perspectives.
When I was a middle school English Language Arts teacher, I often asked my students to engage in debates inspired by our readings. For example, I once asked my students to read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” — a short story in which a group of villagers participate in a long-standing tradition of stoning to death the “winner” of a mandatory lottery — and to debate whether or not the villagers could be considered “murderers.”
The prompt for students to “debate” with one another had its benefits: my students often became passionate to defend their beliefs and their analyses of the text, and students read the text closely to identify evidence and to justify their thinking out loud. However, notable shortcomings also arose when students engaged in the task of debate: they often became combative and indignant when others did not agree with them, and they seemed resistant to change their initial side of the argument.
At any age, it can be challenging for students to admit that they have changed their minds, especially in front of their peers. Even moreso, it can be challenging for students to actively listen and to respond to others’ points of view and analyses. It requires the ability to welcome or to accept a new idea or perspective. An excellent way to foster this kind of openness in the classroom — this culture of intellectual and social empathy — is to ask students to participate in what Peter Elbow called “The Believing Game.”
Balancing believing & doubting
The task of debate often asks students to participate in what Elbow called “The Doubting Game.” The doubting game requires students to be skeptical and as analytic as possible. It encourages students to try hard to doubt ideas, to discover contradictions or weaknesses, and to scrutinize and test others’ logical reasoning. This kind of critical thinking can be incredibly valuable, but it can also foster a classroom culture that only celebrates doubting, whether that be doubting ideas presented in a text or ideas presented by others in the classroom space.
Contrastingly, “The Believing Game” asks students to try to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea they encounter: not only to listen to different views, but also to hold back from arguing with those different views. Further, the believing game asks students to restate others’ beliefs or arguments without bias and to participate in the act of actually trying to believe them. Elbow points out that “often we cannot see what’s good in someone else’s idea (or in our own!) till we work at believing it…when an idea goes against current assumptions and beliefs — or if it seems alien, dangerous, or poorly formulated — we often cannot see any merit in it.”.
Including the believing game in your classroom does not need to coincide with the removal of the doubting game. The act of doubting — of critically thinking to develop thoughtful skepticism — is an undoubtedly important skill for students to develop in order to discern truth. But, a sole focus on doubting, as I shared from my own teaching experience, can lead to a classroom culture in which students are always inclined to doubt. This inclination can lead to rigid thinking, and an unwillingness to listen, respond, and grow. At its worst, this inclination can lead to a classroom culture in which students become hostile towards other students’ beliefs or ideas that seem oppositional to their own.
The benefits of believing
Peter Elbow, the creator of the believing and doubting games, is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has written extensively about the benefits of methodological believing for students and teachers. He identified three main benefits for the believing game in classrooms:
Engage students in the game of believing
The opportunities for students to participate in the game of believing are endless. I offer here a few suggestions for simple ways to engage students in the game of the believing.
Assess and address students' misunderstandings and misconceptions.
Imagine that you are grading your students’ summative assessments at the end of a unit or grading period. You are feeling extremely confident because your students have seemed engaged the past few weeks. But, as you start grading the seventh or eighth assessment, you realize that there are several questions that assess the same skill or content knowledge that no student has answered correctly. You may start thinking, what’s going on?
In my teaching, I experienced this exact situation. I felt frustrated and disappointed with myself and with my instruction. I thought that my students mastered the material based on their classroom engagement, but their summative assessments revealed otherwise. It led me to ask, how can I better identify and support my students’ needs before the summative assessment?
Formative assessments are an excellent, low-stakes way to assess and address students’ misunderstandings or unanswered questions. They can take many forms: short writing prompts, exit tickets, brief video responses, whiteboard questions and answers, conversations, checklists, etc. In any form, they serve as an opportunity to give both teachers and students feedback about progress towards mastery. With that feedback, instruction can be adjusted to better support students’ learning.
Receiving instantaneous feedback
Virtual tools are a great way to ask students focused comprehension questions and to receive almost instantaneous feedback — and many of them are free to use.
Socrative is an online classroom app that provides immediate feedback to teachers and students. You can use it to create and assign short, selected-response quizzes or open-response exit-ticket questions. Teachers can see students’ responses as soon as they are entered, and can quickly generate whole-class data.
Gimkit is a gamified-way to gauge students’ comprehension. Students answer selected-response questions at their own pace, earn imaginary coins, and shop for powerups and game features. Games can be set to last for a set amount of time, which makes it an easy addition to any lesson plan. Plus, students love the gaming interface!
Google Forms, which is integrated within Google Suites, allows you to adjust the settings of a Google Form and turn on the “make this a quiz” function. This will allow you to make an answer key for selected-response questions and to add points and automatic feedback to students. You can see automatic summaries for all quiz responses, including frequently missed questions, graphs marked with correct answers, and average, median, and range of scores.
Gathering invaluable student data
If you're looking for an alternative to digital tools, exit slips are a great way to gather information about students’ current understandings and/or questions. On a piece of paper or a document, ask students to respond to 1-3 questions that ask them to recall or apply information at the end of a lesson.
Student-led conferences, including conferences between student/parent, student/teacher, or among student/parent/teacher allow students to highlight significant areas of growth and to set goals for future learning. Ask a student to bring a sample of their recent work — it could be a summative assessment, a written piece, or a collection of classwork. Then, ask students to reflect on how these learning artifacts reflect their progress in certain skill areas. These conferences can be student, teacher, or parent initiated.
Color-coded student reflection can be a great way for students to reflect on the progress of their own learning towards a goal. When a student goes to turn in their practice work, ask them to highlight their name on the paper using a color-coded system: red to signify “I completely understand and could teach someone else this skill,” blue to signify “I think I understand, but need some more practice,” and green to signify “I don’t think I understand yet and may need some more support.” Keep the highlighters next to your turn-in bin for student work. For younger students, this can also be a great practice to remind them to write their names on their papers.
Thoughtful assessment practices
Listen and respond: whenever you give students a formative assessment, make sure to respond to students’ strengths and opportunities for growth. If a formative assessment only gets graded and handed back without an adjustment in instruction, that is a lost opportunity to provide student-specific and class-wide support.
Keep it brief: formative assessments don’t need to be long or multi-tasked. They are often most effective when they target one specific skill or piece of content, especially when there is room for misunderstandings. Experienced teachers often know when and where students may get tripped up and can plan formative assessments accordingly.
Encourage students’ self-reflection: use formative assessments as a metacognitive practice to get students thinking about their own thinking and learning. It can be great for a teacher to identify and offer support for a student’s misunderstandings, but it can be even better for a student to take that initiative for themselves.
Formative assessments are powerful tools for both teachers and students to reflect on the process of learning. Remember, they can take many forms and can still provide valuable insight into students’ progress towards mastery. Ultimately, formative assessments can help to shine a light on misunderstandings and misconceptions so that, as educators, we can offer necessary help and support to our students.