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Curriculum Opinion

‘Total Participation Techniques': an Interview With Pérsida & William Himmele

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 22, 2016 7 min read
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Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele agreed to answer a few questions about their book, Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student An Active Learner:

LF: You explain at the beginning of your book that you wrote it because many teachers treat their students as, quoting Paolo Freire, “listening objects.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that and what you see as its consequences?

Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele:

The tendency to treat students like “listening objects” is a trap that we all find ourselves falling into. When we know and enjoy the topic of our content, it’s easy to lose sight of the learner, and our role of helping the learner own the learning at a deep level of understanding. Instead, we can get lost in dispensing content, all the while assuming that the students should really care about the content. When students fail to care about the content, and to be immersed in its implications, that’s when we get students who really didn’t learn much at all. They may have passively complied with your learning objectives and been able to “cough it up” on a test, but the learning is often superficial and will likely be forgotten.

The consequences, beyond just the fact that students aren’t learning, can be devastating. When we look at our most vulnerable populations, it shouldn’t surprise us that disengagement is one of the most common reasons cited for dropping out. And students who drop out are eight times more likely to end up in prison. But even for students who are not at risk of leaving school, learning happens when students are engaged. The whole point behind Total Participation Techniques (TPTs) is focused on engaging all students in meaningful learning.

LF: What is your definition of a “total participation technique”? You write a lot about using these strategies to promote higher-order thinking. How might a teacher distinguish a genuine one that promotes that kind of cognitive engagement from one that might instead result in going-through-the-motion compliance?

Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele:

A Total Participation Technique is a teaching technique that allows a teacher to get evidence of active participation and cognitive engagement from all students at the same time. Higher-order, or deeper, thinking is a key player. One of the best ways to ensure deeper thinking is to plan ahead. The prompts that teachers use are really important, and these require that teachers take time and think through the big picture of what’s really important in their lesson. What are the lasting, essential concepts and the bigger implications of what’s being taught? These become the focus of the prompts that teachers then use to assess student learning throughout the lesson, and to guide students to these deeper understandings.

The Cognitive Engagement Model that we present in our book (Himmele & Himmele, 2011) uses quadrants as a way of visualizing the relationships between student participation and higher-order thinking. Without meaningful prompts, students have fun, but they may not necessarily learn anything of value (shown by Quadrant 2). Our goal for students would be to function in Quadrant 4, at least once in every lesson, and, ideally, more than once in every lesson.

LF: What have you seen as the biggest challenges facing teachers who try to apply these techniques in the classroom, and what are some successful strategies for overcoming them?

Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele:

One of the biggest challenges that we’ve seen, is that of picking the technique first. Some of the techniques seem like fun, so teachers select the technique and then craft questions to fit the activity. The problem, with choosing the technique first, is that the technique then becomes the whole point of the lesson, at the expense of the content. Instead, teachers should first decide on the content they are teaching, determine the big picture, and then select a TPT that helps them to teach the content well, at deep levels of learning.

Another challenge is that of dismissal. Some teachers are quick to think, “yeah, I already do that,” but the best way to know whether or not they’re really doing that is to conduct a quadrant analysis. Here’s a link with templates and tools that help show teachers what a quadrant analysis looks like and how to conduct one, either alone or collaboratively with peers. (Working with peers is usually more fun and oftentimes more meaningful).

LF: What are practical examples of a Total Participation Technique? Can you also share one that you’ve developed or learned about since the original publication of your book?

Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele:

Chalkboard Splash

The “Chalkboard splash” is one of our favorites. It works like this: A teacher creates a higher-order prompt, and asks students to record their responses on paper. She then asks students to boil their responses down to 15 words or less, grab a piece of chalk or whiteboard marker, and write it anywhere it fits on the chalkboard (ask them not to line up, just choose any open spot). Debriefing can be done in several ways. One way is to ask small groups to read their peers’ responses and create a summary sentence that encapsulates the themes that they notice. It’s a wonderful way to see what students know and to review the big ideas. If you use chart paper, you can save it and revisit it throughout the unit.

Appointment Agendas

A tool that we both use daily in our college classes, and that can be used successfully in K-12, is the Appointment Agenda (see photo). Students make “appointments” with anyone that is not seated at their tables. Throughout the semester, whenever we want them to discuss something with a partner, we simply choose a time and ask them to meet with their appointment. For example, we might say, “Discuss it with your 2 p.m. appointment.”

Biggest “Aha” Bar Graph

One of the newest TPTs that we are currently writing about is the “Biggest ‘Aha’ Bar Graph”. Using this technique, teachers ask students to record their biggest “Aha” on a half-sheet of paper. The teacher then asks one student to share his or her response. The teacher tapes it to the board, a wall, or chart paper. She/he then asks all students who chose that, or a similar, “Aha” to raise their hands and read their responses, one at a time. Each student comes up to the board/wall/chart paper, grabs a piece of tape (precut and dangling from the chalk tray), and attaches his/her response to the row above the first response.

The teacher then asks the remaining students to raise their hand, and then calls on one of them to share his/her “Aha”. The teacher repeats the procedure, mentioned above, until all “Aha’s” have been posted. This sounds like it takes a long time, but it really doesn’t. You’ll find that you’ll end up with about 5 or 6 rows of “Ahas” that resemble a bar graph. It’s a great way of seeing what portions of your lesson made the most impact, and what the students see as the most relevant concepts within your lesson. It also presents all students with an opportunity to review important concepts that they may have missed.

Notice that all of these techniques require that the students process a concept using critical thinking, and then by physically getting out of their seats to process it. Movement helps in learning, and so we try to incorporate movement as much as we can, even if it’s just-- “Get up, out of your seat, and do this next step in the activity.”

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele:

TPTs are really good for all students, but they are especially important for certain populations of students. English learners, in particular, benefit from TPTs, because TPTs serve as constant checks for understanding. Additionally because the techniques often “ripple out” from working individually to working with pairs or small groups, and finally to a whole class debrief, TPTs allow English learners to test out what they know in a safe setting- with a peer- before it’s brought to the whole group. Students are then more likely to share in a whole group setting, because they’ve confirmed what they know, and they’ve had opportunities to add to it using their peers’ responses. Additionally, a 2015 study by Anita de la Isla, conducted in 4 North Texas schools (2 TPT-practicing schools and 2 non-TPT-practicing schools) with over 200 fifth grade ELLs showed that the students in the two TPT-practicing schools outperformed their non-TPT peers on standardized reading assessments by the end of the year. This was also the case for those monitored students that were within two years of being exited, which means their proficiency levels were more likely to be similar. TPTs are important for all students, but they are absolutely essential for English language learners.

Focusing on learning that is characterized by Quadrant 4 (see quadrants) can help make anyone significantly better, if not exceptional, at the craft of teaching. Because these two components (deeper/higher-order thinking and student participation) are so important to processing important concepts, the learning becomes meaningful and lasting.

LF: Thanks, Pérsida and Bill!





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