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Total Participation Techniques: Don't Toss the Beach Ball

Think about the typical question-and-answer session in most classrooms. We call it "the beach ball scenario" because it reminds us of a scene in which a teacher is holding a beach ball. She tosses it to a student, who quickly catches the ball and tosses it back. She then tosses it to another student. The same scenario happens perhaps three or four times during what is poorly referred to as a "class discussion." Although the teacher asks three or four questions, only two or three eager students actually get an opportunity to demonstrate active cognitive engagement with the topic at hand (we say two or three because a couple of enthusiastic students usually answer more than one question). Often even seasoned teachers can relate to the problem of calling out a question and getting a response from only one or two students. They get little feedback from the others and don't get an accurate assessment of what the others have learned until it's too late. They remember the beach ball scenario. For many, they did it just yesterday. Let's face it: we can all get lost in the beach ball scenario.

The problem with tossing the beach ball is that too many students sit, either passively or actively disengaged, giving no indication of what they are thinking or of what they have learned. They have effectively learned to fly beneath the radar. Do you remember being in this class? Was it a high school or an upper-elementary content class many moons ago? Did you actually even read the book? Well, we'll make no confessions here, for fear that high school diplomas can actually be revoked after issuance. But our point is this: unless you intentionally plan for and require students to demonstrate active participation and cognitive engagement with the topic that you are teaching, you have no way of knowing what students are learning until it's often too late to repair misunderstandings. With approximately six hours of actual instructional time per school day, what percentage of that time are students actively engaged and cognitively invested in what is being taught or learned in your classroom? What evidence do we as teachers have that students are actually cognitively in tune with us? And what wonderful and deep critical thinking are we missing out on by not requiring evidence of processing and content-based interaction by our students?

If we were given the opportunity to choose just one tool that could dramatically improve teaching and learning, we would choose Total Participation Techniques as the quickest, simplest, most effective vehicle for doing so, because whether you're a student teacher, a novice teacher, or even a 30-year veteran, a total-participation mind-set is essential for ensuring active participation and cognitive engagement by all of your learners, as well as for providing you with effective ongoing formative assessments. Total Participation Techniques (TPTs) are teaching techniques that allow for all students to demonstrate, at the same time, active participation and cognitive engagement in the topic being studied. Quite simply, we believe that if you infuse your teaching with TPTs, you'll be a stronger teacher and fewer students will fall through the cracks of our educational system. TPTs can make us all better teachers.

Our new book provides you with 37 Total Participation Techniques that can help your students show you what they know in fun and interactive ways. The book also provides you with a model (Figure 2.1) that you can use to evaluate your lessons or to pursue collaborative teacher-building by analyzing your colleague's lessons (and letting them do the same for yours). If you are an administrator, the model can help you in supporting teachers develop in their ability to create cognitively engaging lessons.

This post was originally published in ASCDEDge. To learn more, pick up a copy of our new book, Total Participation Techniques: Making every student an active learner, from ASCD. Check out the ASCD Webinar on Total Participation Techniques for examples of TPTs and ideas & photos showing how to adapt some of the TPTs for younger learners.

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