Friday, September 6, 2013

Numbered Heads/Desks

Back in May, I attended a two-day Common Core conference with a co-worker (wow, love the alliteration in that sentence!) and walked away with my head swimming with new techniques I wanted to try. The first one I knew I wanted to kick off this year was Numbered Heads (I call it Numbered Desks).

I would love to meet the teacher who has kids JUMPING out of their seats to answer questions, discuss, and share the responsibility of learning amongst their peers. Students who hold intelligent discussions with one another without much prompting from me and always listen attentively while peers share and then can't wait to respond themselves.

But if you're like me here is how it usually goes: You ask a question. There is silence that stretches on awkwardly. Finally the same few kids who always answer questions raise their hands and their peers sit back, knowing they're off the hook because so-and-so always has the answer.

Well that's not how I envision my class. ALL students need to take responsibility for responding, sharing, and discussing. But I also want to avoid kids saying I'm "picking on them" or putting them on the spot. So I have adopted Numbered Desks in my room and so far, I love it.

I numbered all my desks 1-4. I did this pretty low-tech with colored squares of construction paper, a permanent marker, and clear packing tape. Most likely I'll have to replace the numbers each year.

I introduced this concept on day 1 and my students knew I would use it regularly. I don't do it with every single question I ever ask, but I do it with questions that involve critical thinking, planning, and where I want a discussion to ensue.

I pose a question verbally and put it on the SmartBoard (or have it on a sheet the students are given). This way, they can go back to that question if they need to re-read it. I give them a couple minutes to jot down their own response individually. This way they have time to think and can have something to read off of if necessary. Then I have them share with a partner near them. I don't allow them to move around the room; it has to be someone close. If they were totally unsure of their answer, they can run it by a peer and hear what they have to say also.

Then we come back together and I randomly call a number 1-4. Those students have to stand and I hear from them one-by-one. This way, students know their number may always be called (I will sometimes call the same number twice in a row to keep them on their toes so they don't start slacking if they were already called once), and they know they share the responsibility of class discussions. I am hearing from them more rather than me always talking.

When students have their numbers called, it is OK if they agree with what has already been said. But I ask them why they agree or to expand on so-and-so's answer. "I don't know" is not acceptable and they know this. They have a couple options: they can ask me a question for further clarification or help, they can ask for another minute to compose a response, or they can ask to "phone a friend" and get help from a peer. This does not mean the peer answers instead. It means they are allowed to ask a specific question to one peer to aid in their understanding. I always go back to the original student to hear from them.

So far, I have had success with this. I am hearing AWESOME responses from students who would never raise their hands and volunteer on their own. I am hearing from my whole class, not just three or four kids. And they are actually having a discussion with each other. They know the onus is on them, as a class, to learn the material, share ideas, and think through things; it shouldn't just be on one or two students. I will not lie; some students groan if their number is called and aren't thrilled or jumping for joy, but they still stand and give it the old college try. I have yet to have a student be disrespectful or outright refuse to share when their number is called.

What techniques do you use in your room to spur class discussion and shared learning?


  1. I LOVE this idea! I like that no one can get away with not responding OR saying, "I said the same thing." Great tip!!!

  2. This is a great idea! I'm always lookg for strategies that make every student accountable. They also learn much more when hearing from or explaining to a peer.