September 28, 2022
When I taught middle and high school Humanities, the same doom loop happened every time I had a class discussion: a verbally-confident student made a comment that hit the nail on the head, and then for the next ten minutes, four other kids would add little and rehash the same idea (“to piggyback on … so, yes, basically I totally agree.”).
The result? Among the kids: the student who made the original point sits up straighter—affirmed in what’s likely not her first ace; the “piggybackers” sit back, relieved they don’t have to talk again anytime soon; and everyone else registers as some combination of distracted, bored, or anxious.
As a teacher, my own responses were equally problematic. Sometimes I would jump in and didactically wrench the class to the next topic (I was too impatient or skeptical to let them get there themselves … and plus I studied this in grad school so wanted to nerd out about it!). Other times, I too would sit back—theoretically preserving student autonomy but honestly relieved that they had hit the big idea and willing to let them circle until class ended, or all students had talked.
Doom loops like this ultimately inspired me to spend nearly a decade studying classroom discussion: why it matters in our tech-centric, polarized world, what is possible when every student feels heard and challenged, and how to equip teachers with research-backed tools for teaching discussion skills. In doing so, I have worked with educators to build systems to solve many a discussion dilemma!
Today’s discussion dilemma
How can teachers cut down on comments that “piggyback” but ultimately “go” nowhere new?
Equip students with a non-verbal signal (beyond nodding) to express their agreement as they listen. For students who are listening, this allows them to make their engagement visible in the moment, mitigating the need to verbalize it after the fact and opening space for new ideas. For the student who is speaking, seeing classmates’ agreement makes them feel heard and, often, more confident. For the teacher, using an “I agree!” gesture is a great way to quietly emphasize important points, and watching students use it helps you gauge their engagement.
The knee-jerk response
“That sounds way too hokey—especially for high schoolers!” I thought so too, but urge you to suspend disbelief. I couldn’t believe it when in the school I was teaching,…