Dice Rolls and Learning Grids

In their highly recommended book "Outstanding Teaching: Engaging Learners", Mark Burns and Andy Griffith set out a number of techniques for tapping into the holy grail of engagement: intrinsic motivation.

Using foam dice (they do need to be foam or the activity quickly becomes too noisy) and a 6 x 6 grid of stimuli, a random element is introduced to the way learners interact with content. It can be particularly helpful with writing / creativity.

This example (encouraging learners to explore writing in the Gothic Horror genre) is fairly typical.  Learners use dice to land on squares in the grid such as "Lost!" or an image of an egg timer, then attempt to write a sentence inspired by / including the content of the grid square. Learners work in pairs and swapping the pen after each sentence.

One way to narrow the gaps? Get rid of your Low Ability learners.

"Surely, you can't be serious!" I hear you cry, dear reader.

Actually, I am.

And whilst you are about it, get rid of your High Ability, Middle Ability, More Able and Gifted & Talented learners too.

"But there'll be no one left to teach!" you retort. Yes, there will: and they will be learners who are - every single one of them - growing in confidence in your classroom.

The Questioning Funnel

This is a questioning technique that seems so obvious when you understand it that you might find yourself using it every day for the rest of your teaching career.

Let's say I am leading a discussion on a poem that we have just read, an oil refinery we have just visited, a dance move we have just choreographed, an experiment we have just carried out, a match we have just lost, a mathematical technique we have just tried...anything at all.

What is the point of this discussion?  Well, there are probably at least two things I want to happen:-
1) I gather the thoughts and ideas of my learners, helping me to assess their understanding and giving me a chance to probe and develop their thinking.
2) I want to make sure they are aware of and understand some specific, important points.

Link Four Cards

To produce this activity you need do nothing more than type a list of key words (and maybe a few pictures) in separate text boxes on the interactive whiteboard (paper cards with blu-tac on the back are also fine). Despite its simplicity, this is one of the most powerful techniques for probing understanding and revealing misconceptions that I have come across.

Question Card Swap

Sometimes, learners need to be secure with a number of FACTS before they can access the next stage in their learning. Question Card Swap is an active, fun way to teach a number of such key facts.

Continuum Activity

There are many ways of running continuum activities but in essence they involve learners sorting information according to a specified criterion.  For example, you might give learners different cards with statements such as "Owning a computer"; "Having lots of friends"; "Having lots of money"; "Being loved"; "Knowing a lot"; "Having a degree"; "Driving a big car"; "Wearing the latest trainers" etc.  The criterion is this case might be "What are the most important factors that contribute to a good quality of life?"

Learners then need to sort themselves according to this criterion, and hence justify their position on the continuum.  This generates a lot of discussion and - depending on the context - this can get quite heated!


Mysteries can be extremely engaging, powerful thinking skills activities. They involve giving small groups of learners a set of cards containing many different pieces of information and challenging them to answer a Focus Question by sorting, connecting and making sense of the information.

The mystery can be convergent (there is one right answer - like in this maths example: "Does Amelie make it to the catwalk?"), or divergent (there are a number of ways learners can connect the information and draw different conclusions - like in some of these History examples).

Opinion Finder

Opinion Finder is a great way to actively involve learners in seeking out and listening to the opinions of others. Each pupil is given a proforma sheet with a contentious statement on it, that is relevant to the topic at hand e.g. "Using cannabis is less harmful than drinking alcohol", "Goldilocks was a brave girl", "Lady Macbeth was evil", "People should be able to vote from age 16", "The grid method is best for multiplying two 3-digit numbers" etc.

Learners then move around the room asking each other if they agree with the statement or not, and WHY. They take notes of the different opinions.

Situation Bingo (Find someone who...)

Not every activity has to be a brain-bending thinking skills challenge.  This is a simple, fun ice-breaker perhaps best used at the start of a year so learners can start to find out a bit more about each other.

Collective Memory (a.k.a. Maps from Memory)

Diagram of a motte and bailey castle
Learners in groups of three or four are given a number within the group: 1, 2, 3, 4.

All the 1s are invited up to look at a source image hidden on the teacher's desk for 10 seconds, then they return to their group and describe (to the number 2s) what they have seen. The number 2s start to reproduce the image on a blank piece of paper as accurately as possible. After 30 seconds, all the 2s come up for 10 seconds, return to the group, and describe what they have seen to the 3s, to help complete and refine the copied picture / diagram. Then the 3s come up, then 4s, etc.

List, Group, Label

A way of doing a card sort, thinking skills activity but without having to prepare any cards!

LIST: Invite students in small groups to write down as many words / phrases as they can that are connected with a particular concept (e.g. climate change) and write them on separate Post-it notes. The more they come up with the better (use the really small post-its to save paper).

GROUP: Ask the students to think how they could sort the post-its into groups that have something in common. Do not suggest categories - the value lies in them making the connections themselves.

Which one of these best shows the meaning of...?

Not a very snappy name for a T&L tool, but extremely simple to produce.  A fantastic discussion stimulus for exploring the meaning of concepts and for developing the skill of evaluation in a different way.  Pictured is an example to explore the meaning of "friendship". 
Which ONE of these images best shows the
 meaning of FRIENDSHIP and why?

Now think for a moment which one you would choose.  It's probably quite easy to highlight the connection between friendship and any one of the pictures, e.g. Picture 2 - "friends help each other out", but this is NOT the activity.  The activity is to identify the ONE image that, given all that you know about friendship, best encapsulates that concept.  You are required to evaluate them all against this criterion, choose one and justify your choice.

The All-Purpose Analysis Tool

This is a technique that encourages learners to look in real detail at...well, anything!  And it's such a simple way to encourage skills around classification, categorisation and making links.

Learners are asked to consider three items in detail and identify:-
  - What do items 1&2 have in common?
  - What do items 2&3 have in common?
  - What do items 1&3 have in common?
  - What do all three have in common?
  - What is unique about each item?

Formulator Tarsia Jigsaw Puzzles

The brilliant (and, amazingly, free!) Formulator Tarsia application makes special jigsaw puzzles where learners match up questions and answers on adjacent puzzle pieces.  It is a fantastic, fun "entry-level" collaborative activity.

You input the questions and answers and the software jumbles them up and makes an attractive puzzle of shapes.

Combining thinking time with paired talk

Choosing the appropriate questioning technique for any given phase of a lesson is an essential classroom skill.  Inviting hands up is an ancient classic, but in most classes only really reaches the same small group of learners.  Targeting a question at a particular pupil can extend your reach but may put learners on the spot, when the aim is to create a safe space to share thoughts.

Combining thinking time with paired talk is a great alternative when asking 'bigger' open questions or when generating ideas.  It is of little value for closed questions.

The 5Ws activity

This simple technique involves putting up an interesting picture on the whiteboard as a stimulus for a new topic and then inviting students to spend 5 minutes in pairs coming up with Who, What, Where, When, Why and How questions to ask about the image.

The Concept Attainment Technique

This powerful technique, used for helping students to develop their understanding of a particular concept, involves slowly revealing pairs of statements, ideas, pictures (whatever) one of which embodies a particular concept and one of which doesn't. Make the fact that you are trying to get over a particular concept explicit, and challenge students to articulate the concept.

Keyword Splat!

This technique can be used as a starter or recap activity and takes little or no preparation.

Invite students to come up with key words from your subject. Type / write them randomly all over the whiteboard. Around 12-15 is a good number.

Next invite two students to stand on either side of the board. Now ask a student from the rest of the class to ask a question, or give a definition the answer to which is one of the words on the board.

The two students at the board then compete to Splat the correct word with their hand / a fly swat / a rolled up newspaper.

Odd One Out

On the whiteboard, put up four pictures or pieces of text (or reveal four objects on tables, play four pieces of music, etc) and ask learners to decide which is the odd one out and WHY.  This technique can be used for almost any context, subject, topic or year group.