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, the “I-agree” hand gesture from my ninth-grade English class spread like wildfire. Kids used it in other classes, in advisory, in sports—and kept doing so through twelfth grade. Since then, I’ve seen hand signals catch on with thousands of students across dozens of schools. All to say: give it a shot.
How to do it
From the getgo, recognize that like any ritual, this gesture will only be as effective as the culture you build around it so I suggest launching it with purpose, explaining why it matters (it’s a tool for listeners to express themselves, for speakers to build confidence, and for me to see your non-verbal engagement) and how it’ll work (you might call it a “Visual Like Button”). You can and should consider different options for the gesture, too! In my classroom, I opted to use the “Same” hand signal from American Sign Language. This has been popularized in elementary school classrooms as a gesture indicating agreement by programs like Responsive Classroom, so you may find that students are already familiar with it. Many might actually be nostalgic for it, too! I’ve seen other teachers successfully use gestures like thumbs up or snaps. When you have a discussion, ask students to tally how many times they use the NVC signal. This will build self-awareness and reinforce the habit. After you have a discussion, ask students how it felt—usually, anyone who spoke and saw a peer do it will light up recounting the difference it made.
Why it works
Even before the pandemic, Gen-Z was spending record-breaking time on screens and feeling anxious about face-to-face interactions. Exercises like class discussion feel especially scary for a generation that would rather text than talk—especially when it is graded—so making discussion skills discrete and concrete is critical. As Emily Weinstein and Carrie James have shown, teens feel simultaneously pressure to speak up for what they believe and are terrified of being “canceled;” given that dynamic, making peer affirmation visible in real-time can help make the classroom feel safer. The “Visual Like Button” concept also works because it helps students develop self-awareness (how am I “listening” right now?) and self-regulation (“am I paying attention? Do I want to agree with this statement? How can I engage without distracting or interrupting?”). It’s important to remember that kids are used to being able to express themselves immediately—on social media and group text, there is no “waiting your turn”—so the idea of a “like button” is intuitive and important to them.
As a teacher, get ready for the conversation to move much faster once you have implemented an I-Agree hand signal. Since students aren’t repeating each other—unless they are explicitly adding something new to the argument!—they will churn through content more quickly. You might consider giving them an extra “bailout” question in case they run out of “stuff to talk about” (in my classrooms, that was always “Why are we reading this?”, which they would race to get to!). Be prepared, too, for the inevitable question: “Can we have a disagree hand signal?” I highly recommend that you say no until the class has developed sufficient trust and fluency in basic discussion skills. After all, there is a reason social media has gotten rid of dislike buttons; they feel harsh and not nuanced. However, if you think the class is “there,” you can invite students to pilot a disagree symbol for a discussion and debrief it afterward. In my experience, they will choose something like a “stop sign”—and within one discussion realize it feels uncomfortable and attention-grabbing to do and to receive and so will opt to get rid of it. There is also the reality that disagreement deserves more explanation and nuance than can be captured by a single gesture. That said: there can be value in the class trying—and deciding not to use it—but only if they have the foundation in place to reflect thoughtfully.
You may be interested in reading more articles written by Liza Garonzik for Intrepid Ed News.