Probing the continuum


From time to time, we happen upon a simple and effortless strategy that makes a fundamental difference to a key element of our teaching. Over the years we hone this down to something close to perfection, yet because it is so easy and straightforward we just assume that everyone else is doing the same thing. Forgive me, then, if you already do this, but here is my awkwardly named ‘post-it discussion’ in all its glory. It is simply the best strategy for initiating quality discussion I have ever put to use in my classroom, and this week it has become even better…

It works like this.

I give students a question – say, ‘Did Steinbeck present a completely pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ – and show them a continuum, from ‘yes’ to ‘no’, on the board.


2. I tell them that I will give them a post-it note on which they will write their name. I remind them that they can stick the post-it along the continuum wherever they like. As I am dawdling round handing out the post-its, I let them chat to their neighbours about where they will place themselves. (The dawdling is a deliberate tactic that enables me to feed in a few ideas to those who are unsure or lack confidence as I go round.)

3. Once all the post-its are up on the board, it is time for the discussion to begin. I now know the broad sweep of opinion in the class, and can conduct the discussion however I like. In true Carol Vorderman style – ‘one from the left, one from the right and now one from the middle’ – I pick off the post-its, asking students either to comment on the reasoning behind their position or to feed back on the opposing comment we have just heard. As always, it is important to probe and refuse to accept badly reasoned points. I do also allow hands-up comments too as I think a total ‘hands-down’ policy can sometimes be counter-productive (as I explained in this post here). Giving an option to move the note to a different position along the continuum mid-discussion is also vital.

Above is the simple premise, but it is the recent tweaks I have made which have really excited me.

  • The first is to encourage students to use the ABC – agree with, build-upon or challenge – discussion format that Alex Quigley discusses here.
  • The second, which I put into action yesterday, added an extra dimension to the process comes from Doug Lemov’s comment on Alex’s blog. If students want to comment on another student’s point they raise two fingers rather than the whole hand (in the ‘victory-sign’ way, of course!) My initial feeling is that this makes them listen to each other more carefully and, when I want to liven things up a bit, I turn to a ‘two-finger’ student to turn the discussion on its head.
  • Another variation is to ensure that students have key words and concepts available as cues. If we are discussing a text, I like this to be available too so that they can support their ideas with textual evidence.
  • The most exciting I have left until last. I have been fascinated by the ‘art of the sentence’ idea that Doug Lemov has been blogging about recently – here. By giving students sentence starters, such as ‘at first glance’ or ‘throughout the poem’ not only are we prompting ideas, but we are giving them a syntactical structure that helps to generate new thinking. Getting students to practise using these structures during the discussion will neatly set them up for later extended writing tasks.

Have a look below at my Mark II slide:


So why might it work? First, unlike some other ‘no opt-out’ strategies there is lots of opportunity to think ideas through before speaking. Second, the continuum promotes balanced, ‘shades of grey’ thinking when used repeatedly, especially so when in conjunction with sentence prompts. Third, if used judicially in the learning cycle it can feed directly into the scaffolding of writing. Last, despite the fact it seems to have become an unfashionable word in the blogosphere, it promotes engagement. This kind of engagement in language and quality thought seems to me to be very beneficial.

Two words of warning before you give this a try. Be careful when wording the question that you do not give students an option to take up a weak line of argument that could lead to genuine misconception. Note how above I asked the question ‘Did Steinbeck present a completely pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ rather than ‘Did Steinbeck present a pessimistic view of the world in Of Mice and Men?’ Watch out, too, for those shrinking violets who try to hide their post-it under another’s!

Please give it a try and let me know below how it has gone for you. More tweaking ideas would be gratefully received.

A special thanks to Dan Brinton – @BelmontTeach – for pointing out how risible the original title for this blog was and suggesting the slimmer title it now has!

6 thoughts on “Probing the continuum

  1. I’ve been working on something similar with non-fiction texts: have tried to give students key analysis verbs, reveals, suggests, implies. Initial attempts have proved encouraging; have also tied it to more formalised ‘jotting’ of answers, rather than the scattergun text annotation I’ve used in the past. Am hoping this will lead to more confidence in reading exam style questions. Really interesting stuff. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Promoting Structured Classroom Discussion | Class Teaching

  3. Pingback: The Everest writing scaffold | Reflecting English

  4. Pingback: Modelling & Questioning | Class Teaching

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s