“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that
I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”
— Charlie Munger
It was early on in my teaching career when it hit me: My students believed any opinion on our current text was a good opinion.
They would offer up their own “thoughts”, “beliefs”, “feelings” and opinions on the short-story, and believed (wholeheartedly) that any reader response was a correct reader response.
At first, I didn’t want to say anything.
They were participating in the discussion and having discourse around text-to-text, text-to-self, text-to-world connections. Although most of their insights seemed biased and a bit one-sided (without any evidence), they were at least sharing their opinions.
Over the course of that first year teaching, things began to spiral out of control. Our discussions became less and less about textual evidence, and more about feelings and personal beliefs that often had nothing to do with the non-fiction text, video clip, short story, or book they were reading.
That April, I wasn’t sure what to do. I had lost control. By supporting a practice that led to opinions without substance (and based totally on personal feeling and bias) I had inadvertently turned every class discussion into a “talk about myself” session.
The thing is, I didn’t inherently disagree with the notion to get students talking and sharing their opinions. It provided an opportunity to build rapport, develop relationships, and have meaningful conversations about the world and life in general.
But, it wasn’t going to help them when they had to back up those opinions in the real world (or in our classroom) with reasons other than their feelings.
This is when I had to start the process completely overhauling the discussion in my classroom. In order to do so, I followed a three-step process that was a combination of advice from my colleagues (who had been teaching much longer than me) and research that supported student-centered discussions (with clear expectations).
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 Melisa 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 are 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). The only difference is that the “I know (because)” card is worth four points, due to it being backed up by evidence.
This scaffolds a productive discussion 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. It allows them to share the opinion only discussion points (I feel, I think) – but also makes it very clear that the “I know because” statements are valued at a higher level.
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 TodaysMeet.com 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 sharing opinions and supporting evidence (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 discussing and work to have an opinion. 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 and do the work to have an opinion.
The Symposium is the final step in the scaffolding to get kids to do the necessary work to have an opinion.
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 backing up their discussions) 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.
How Many Of Us Do The Work Required to Have An Opinion?
I firmly believe opinions need to be shared, yet, just like my students, I’ve often failed at doing the work required to have an opinion that is based on something more than “just my feelings”.
In fact, this came up the other day at work. We are looking at moving all of our 5th and 4th-grade classes to be departmentalized. What this means is that instead of having the same 5th-grade or 4th-grade teacher all day long, you would have a different teacher for Math, and a different teacher for Language Arts (much like in middle school and high school).
I was all for this move, believing that it would give the teachers more time to focus on their craft in that subject area, as well as more time for professional development in that area.
I spoke loudly and matter-of-factly that this is the move we should make. Most agreed, and others that may have had a different opinion did not speak up.
I cited no research.
I brought no varying perspectives to the table.
I didn’t even consult a teacher in offering up my “firm belief opinion” on what we should be doing.
In my head, my logic was sound. My experience had backed up what I believed because I spent most of my education career as a secondary subject-specific teacher.
In short, I had not done the work necessary to hold an opinion on this topic, let alone be the deciding opinion and loudest voice in the room.
Shortly after this meeting, I read an article on Farnam Street. It shook me to my core.
I’m going to share most of it below, so you can read it for yourself. It was one of those epiphany moments in which I questioned everything I was doing as a leader and felt mortified for sharing opinions so explicitly as fact…without ever doing the work.
Here’s what Shane Parrish wrote that really got me thinking:
While we all hold an opinion on almost everything, how many of us do the work required to have an opinion?
The work is the hard part. You have to do the reading. Talk to anyone you can find and listen to their arguments. Think about the key variables. Consider the system. Think about how you might be fooling yourself. Regard an issue not emotionally but rationally.
You need to become your most intelligent critic and have the intellectual honesty to kill some of your best-loved ideas. As Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135–1204), commonly known as Maimonides, said: “Teach thy tongue to say I do not know, and thou shalt progress.”
Only then, when you can argue better against yourself than others can, have you done the work to hold an opinion. That is the time you can say, “Hey, I can hold this view, because I can’t find anyone else who can argue better against my view.”
Great thinkers, like Darwin, did the work necessary to hold an opinion. And it’s one of the biggest reasons he’s buried at Westminster Abbey.
Doing the work counteracts our natural desire to seek out only information that confirms what we believe we know. When Darwin encountered opinions or facts that ran contrary to his ideas, he endeavored not only to listen but also not to rest until he could either argue better than his challengers or understand how the fact fit. Darwin did the work. It’s wasn’t easy, but that’s the point.
The difference between the people who do the work and the people who just reel off memorized opinion is huge. When you do the work, you can answer the next question. This became clear when I was working toward my MBA. I was surrounded by people who could answer the test questions. They got good grades — actually, they got great grades. But an odd thing happened after school: a lot of those people couldn’t apply their knowledge to problems they hadn’t seen before.
They were chauffeurs — they knew the memorized answer. They couldn’t answer the next question. We’re all chauffeurs in some aspects of our lives. This is why understanding your circle of competence is so critical to living a rational life.
Doing the work means you can’t make up your mind with a high degree of confidence right away.
Doing the work forces you to challenge your beliefs because you have to argue from both sides. You become the somewhat impartial judge. What’s on trial is your opinion.
So, I started to do the work after reading this. And, in looking through the research I found two recent studies on the topic of departmentalization.
My opinion, it turns out, was wrong. At least it was wrong in terms of the current research on the topic. Both studies said there was a negative effect on student learning when the teacher’s specialized.
I figured my work was just beginning as I began the long process of learning much more about this area so the next time it came up, I could share some facts and open it up to real dialogue.
But, Isn’t This Impossible?
Yes, I do think it is hard to do the necessary work for each and every opinion. Many of us work in jobs and live in a world that is constantly asking for our opinions.
I do believe the important piece for our kids – and us as adults – is to recognize that opinions are powerful. Too often opinions can quickly turn into “truths” that are commonly shared, believed, and practiced.
I spend too much time in an online world where people are quick to judge, quick to find one flaw and expose it, quick to jump on opinions and parts of a story without looking at all the perspectives. I am guilty of doing this as well much more than I’d like to admit.
What I learned from my epiphany moment with my students and with myself, is that I have to spend more time on important topics to really understand all sides, take in all the research, and be able to speak to an educated perspective that I know is not the only one worth considering.
Would love to hear your “opinion” in the comments below!
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