The Three-Step System For Getting Students to Do the Talking

This blog series was authored by our own A.J. Juliani, Head of Learning & Growth.

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “student-centered classroom” and I almost chuckled.

I had always believed my classroom was about the students, they were the reason we taught and my focus was always on their learning.

This new terminology sounded like another buzzword and I didn’t pay much attention to the presentation until I heard this:

Whoever is doing the talking is doing the majority of the learning. In your classroom what is the ratio of teacher-talk to student-talk?

I had never thought about this balance between teacher-talk to student-talk before. It made me reflect on how many of my lessons had me talking, entertaining and presenting to my students. And, yet, as I continued to reflect the best lessons were always the ones where students owned what they were learning and doing.

Whether it was a discussion, a project, or an activity–they were more engaged and empowered than when I was doing the entertaining.

I set off that year to give my students more of an opportunity to lead classroom discussions, have a choice in their projects, and ultimately make my classroom a student-centered space to learn and grow.

Then Reality Hit…

The idea of a student-centered classroom is great. Like most educational theories, it sounds doable, but then, in reality, it is challenging to get up and running.

One way to talk about changing to a student-centered classroom (and probably the most popular way to talk about this move) is to focus on getting rid of lectures. The lecture was a staple of classrooms for years and years but has always been a bit of a hot topic. Just recently the debate over lectures flared up again with Seth Godin taking issue with the stand-and-deliver mode of teaching on his blog:

In a recent NY Times op-ed, Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, describes why she has forbidden students from using laptops in her lectures.

There’s now plenty of data that shows that in a lecture setting, students with laptops don’t do as well or learn as much as students without one. The reasons make sense, and I applaud her standards and her guts.

But she missed the real issue.

How about this instead: No lecture hall.

Godin (an author of many best-selling books and founder of AltMBA program) goes on to dispel many of the myths around lectures, but ends on this piece that hit home:

A great teacher is smart enough and connected enough to run an interactive conversation, a participatory seminar in the concepts that need to be learned.

I agreed with this sentiment whole-heartedly. But, when I first tried to move away from the usual lecture in my classroom, it was not easy.

In fact, I was awful at it.

I struggled to get the students involved. I didn’t have an answer for when the room went silent (when they were supposed to be leading a discussion), and the project-based learning that had all the choices became a madhouse of options that were too hard to assess and too broad to connect to what we were learning.

Later that year, in a conversation with a great mentor teacher of mine (love you Jen Smith!) she asked me a very simple question:

How did you scaffold the change? Or did you just jump into students owning their learning head first?

I attempted to respond with the ways I scaffolded this change until I realized I had nothing to say.


After admitting my faults as someone who tends to jump in headfirst, she laughed and said, “Let’s start with where the kids are at and what they are used to. Then, where we want them to be. All we have to do after that is plan steps to move them from point A to B.”

The Three-Step System For Getting Students to Do the Talking

Most of my students were used to a teacher lecturing and then asking a few questions during the lecture. They would either raise a hand to answer or sometimes “turn and talk” to discuss in a small group.

For project-based learning, most of my students were used to a very detailed project outline, with step-by-step directions that were more like a recipe than a wide-open project. They would get a rubric that was geared towards the final product, and rarely had anything to do with the process of learning.

I was throwing these kids into projects like our “Junk Sculpture Project” where they had to create a sculpture (using household items and junk) that represented various symbols and motifs in a recent short story. The rubric was process driven and there was not a fourteen-step process for the kids to follow, it was a project they could modify to their needs, but instead, the kids were lost and not sure how to proceed.

Similarly, I was putting these kids into a Socratic seminar where I did none of the talking and they discussed with their own questions, insights, ideas, and answers as a large group.

Most of the time during this Socratic seminar it was dead-silent or dominated by a few students who ran the conversation.

In order to get my students to take ownership in their learning, we started where they were at, instead of where I wanted them to be.

We began by focusing on the classroom discussion habits. Most kids were only answering questions that I asked with an answer to that question.

They weren’t asking their own questions of why, how, when, where, and who. They weren’t sharing what they “think”, what they “know”, and what they “connected to” during the discussion.

In reality, they were just focused on getting the right answer. And we set out to fix this during the first step to a student-centered classroom.

Step #1: The Discussion Game

My students rolled into class like any other day, and not much was changed. The tables were still set up in small groups, the projector was on with their “Do Now” activity on the board. And, the Homework for the week was written for each day.

The only difference was that each seat had a white envelope on it, filled with five cards of all different colors.

This was the opening of our first discussion game. I got the idea from our colleague Melissa Perlman and have seen variations of this game all over the place online. The best part about it is that it is simple to create, simple to explain, and completely modifiable depending on your subject, grade level, or classroom setting.

Here’s the basics. Each student gets a number of different colored cards to use throughout the discussion. They must play each card once, but can play the question card multiple times after using all other cards.

Red Card = I think

Blue Card = I know (because)

Yellow Card = Pose a Question

Green Card = I feel

Orange Card = Connect (to yourself, to the world, to another text/idea/subject)

Each card is worth a point (if you want to grade this activity, completely up to you and your classroom/school) and the goal is to replace assessing only the final product (quiz) and instead the process of learning (having an active discussion).

This scaffolds the student-centered classroom in two ways.

First, the game is centered on your subject, concept, content, text for the lesson. Students have to be engaged with that content in order to respond with the above answers and questions (I think, I know because, I feel, Connect, etc).

Second, it models the many ways you can contribute to an active learning discussion. This helps the students who may be shy or want to hide during the discussion.

Finally, we added a back-channel component to this game where students did not have to always talk out-loud to the class to discuss and earn points, but could “play their cards” online in platforms like for participating in the discussion.

Step #2: The Fish Bowl

After playing the discussion game a few times, students began to get into discussions and own the conversation. Yes, they were prodded into answers and asking questions, but the goal of the first step is to get them talking (and have me talk way less).

It worked for our class and for many in our school. But, it was not the final goal. I’d rather not have the carrot (or stick) be the only reason students are talking, so we had to continue moving away from that reason, and also change up the format to one that is less scripted by the cards.

Enter, the Fish Bowl.

This activity was used by our colleague Anthony Gabriele, and like all good things we modified it to work with our group of students. There are some good write-ups online for the Fish Bowl (like this one) and many different ways to do it, but here is how we did it in my class as the second step.

Fish Bowl Prep: Students are to have read, learned, or already delved into a specific text or content before the start of class. This, however, does not need to be homework. It could be learning that happened in a previous lesson or experience. The key is that the students are not learning something “new” during the Fish Bowl, they are instead going to learn from each other during the discussion and share their insights and questions (much like the discussion game).

Classroom Setup: Set up your classroom with two sets of circles. One big circle will be on the outside and then on the inside there will be a smaller circle of four-to-five chairs (depending on class size this could also be three or six chairs).


How it Works: When students come into class they will grab a seat. Don’t worry where they sit as all students will eventually get into the middle of the circle (The Fish Bowl) for the discussion. The inside circle does the talking and discussing. They should be prepared but focus on having an active conversation using the techniques learned in the discussion game. The outside circle takes notes on the inner discussion. This could be scaffolded by the teacher to focus on specific areas of the conversation, or more wide open like taking notes during a lecture. Depends on your situation for how you want to prep students for the outside not taking.

Every five minutes you’ll want to replace the inner circle with new students to discuss. They can pick up where the previous discussion left off, or start new.

Two keys to making this work. First, as a teacher, you must not prompt or get students talking. The goal is for them to have a productive struggle in the beginning and then get into a flow. Second, depending on your class you may want to pick the fishbowl groups ahead of time to get a good mix of students for the discussion. This, of course, is your preference as the teacher.

Finally, you can assess this conversation in a few ways, but I’d focus more on the active discussion part than what was said at first. Then as you do it more often and students become comfortable you can change a rubric to have different assessment pieces that reflect the content of the discussion.

*Note: As with the Discussion Game, you can add an online component to this as well. Have the outside of the circle write their feedback and notes on a shared doc, a backchannel like Today’s Meet, and discussion board forum inside an LMS, or any other way to make the note-taking more collaborative.

Step #3: The Symposium

When students have successfully played the discussion game and then moved onto the fishbowl, you’ve already got them to do most of the talking. This is a win (and should be celebrated)!

But, remember our original goal?

Student-centered, where they are asking and answering the questions, learning from each other, and having a choice in where they head with their learning.

The Symposium is the final step in the scaffolding to get kids to do the talking.

At first glance, the Symposium looks much like the Fish Bowl. The classroom is set up the same with two circles (one smaller inside). But, this time the prep is different.

Students will get into groups of 3-6 to prepare for their symposium discussion. The discussion will be 20 minutes long where they will share their insights, connections, commentary, and questions on the content. As a group, they can prep together or separately for this discussion.

The outside circle plays an important role in the symposium. They take notes the first twenty minutes, but then they get to “grill” the inner circle with questions for the next 15-20 minutes. This takes the inner conversation to the next level with a back and forth between the entire class.

As a teacher, you sometimes have to play moderator during this second part of the symposium.

The fun is seeing the students do the talking, the question asking, the debating, and the learning. This is what I was hoping to see when I first did a Socratic Seminar, but it did not work, mainly due to the fact that I did not scaffold a way for students to slowly get into the habit of doing the talking.

It doesn’t matter if you look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, or any other set of educational standards or guidelines.

When students are communicating and collaborating (and talking) much more learning is happening!

This is the three-step system we used and it worked well, but constantly needed to be tweaked.

It looked very different in terms of setup and time allotted when I did it with different groups of students depending on their age, level, and experience in a student-centered environment.

Call to Action

If you are like me and wanting to get students to talk more (and learn more) then I’d love for you to share any strategies or tips used in your classroom! Please share in the comments with any ideas and/or questions.

Sign up to get the handouts for the discussion game, fishbowl, and symposium (thanks to Anthony Gabriele for keeping these resources handy)!

Explore ProjectsRank & Reason, and Performance Tasks for rich discussion opportunities encouraging student voice.