How I previously used ‘talk partners’ in a lesson:
“Do you think a car is alive? Discuss with your talk partner what you think and why.”
After perhaps a minute, I would signal for everyone’s attention and then randomly-select a pupil to tell me what they thought. I wouldn’t generally display how long exactly the pairs had to speak, as I felt this gave me more flexibility to let the conversation keep going if we had a good discussion or equally I could end things early if I sensed discussion was sputtering out.
On further investigation, I found what was often happening in my ‘talk partner’ pairs was this:
-one partner dominated the conversation, doing all the talking and not letting the other person get a word in. Their bored partner might then just not listen to what was being said and stare out the window.
-both partners would pretty much speak at the same time in their enthusiasm to get their opinion across, and neither of them would listen!
Was this great for learning? Probably not. I really noticed this issue when I swapped my end question to ‘what did your partner tell you?’; a LOT of the children couldn’t tell me anything their partner said at all, because they hadn’t been listening.
To encourage listening, I introduced the Kagan structure called ‘Timed Pair Share’. It certainly wasn’t as quick and easy as simply saying ‘talk to your partner’, but it REALLY encouraged listening and participating.
Here’s what I now say:
We’re going to discuss if you think a car is living, and why. Have a think about what you are going to say…….
Okay, Partner B is going to talk first. That means Partner A will be listening. Partner A, look at Partner B and say “I’m-a gonna listen!” (We all say this in a silly accent, the kids LOVE it!).
I set a timer on the board for one minute.
Partner B, you can begin talking.
One minute later, an alarm sounds.
Partner A, say ‘thanks for sharing’ to your partner. Okay, now we are going to swap over roles. Partner A is going to speak, and Partner B is going to listen. Which means Partner B you need to look at your partner and say ‘I’m-a gonna listen!’.
I set my timer on the board again for a minute.
Partner A, you can begin.
One minute later, an alarm sounds.
Partner B, say ‘thanks for sharing’ to your partner. Right, I’m going to choose someone randomly and I’d like you to share with me something your partner said to you.
Is this more long-winded to do? Initially, yes. But you get REALLY good discussion which you know EVERY pupil in your class was involved in. It sounds silly, but if you just use unstructured talk partners, then at the end of the year there’s a chance that some of your children have actually barely spoken, as their partner has always dominated the discussion.
Having the timer visible on the board means that your children will start to manage their time and will (eventually!) start trying to prioritise their ideas when talking to their partner.
I love including compliments and so on into the activity, as this puts a smile on everyone’s face and makes us all feel like we’re on the same team. Often, BEFORE someone is about to talk I have their partner say to them something like “You’re going to be grrrrrrreat!”. This little comment I find really warms the speaker up, and encourages reluctant pupils to perform better.
Again, this sounds like a lot of fuss and also not very organic, but you get a LOT out of it in the long-run. Children engage, they listen, they compliment each other, they question, they think, they learn to take turns. It really is worth it. Also, knowing that you are going to invest five minutes of a lesson in a discussion encourages you as a teacher to select a really key question rather than perhaps firing out a few questions and having them discussed haphazardly.
Some of you might be thinking ‘Well, that’s all well and good for your little ones, but my Year 6 class doesn’t need that. They know how to take turns and listen’. In response I’d say do some honest research and listen in on your pupils and see what you find. Then, perhaps try a timed pair share and see if you think the children look more engaged.
TIP 1: Discuss in advance that you will be selecting someone to share what their partner was saying with you, as this encourages listening even more.
TIP 2: Discuss with the children what they should do if their partner runs out of things to say before their time is up. What should we do? Sit and stare into space? NO! Ask your partner questions to get them talking again until the time is up.
ADVANCED TIP: What should you do if you have an odd number of pupils leading to a group of 3? Extend the timer for the second round of discussion. The pairs in your class will use this extra time for discussion and asking their partner more questions, while you should make sure your group of three splits the longer second round between two pupils so that everyone has had a turn to speak. For example:
You give 1 minute of talk time for round one. One person from the group of three talks and the two others listen.
For round two, give a minute and a half for everyone. Make sure that the group of three splits that time so that one pupil gets 45 seconds and then the final pupil in the three gets the remaining 45 seconds.