The Poker Player’s Guide to Leading Class Discussions

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not a professional, amateur, or even wannabe poker player.[fn1]

This post is about moving away from the transactional model of classroom discourse, where the teacher asks a question, a student provides an answer, the teacher validates or corrects the answer, then asks another question. Repeat ad nauseum until the students either graduate or drop out.

For extra disengagement, you can spice up the teacher-student transactions by eliminating wait time, cutting students off, shaming wrong responses, fishing and fishing and fishing for that reallllly specific answer, and best of all, flopping out undirected questions that lie dead in the classroom like beached whales.

We’ve all had moments (or lessons, or weeks, or years) like that. Even once I thought I was great at facilitating class discussions, I screwed this stuff up over and over again. Videotaping your own lessons is a great experience, humbling but hopefully not so humbling that you immediately quit the profession. Now, that wasn’t entirely my experience, but even though corporations may be people now, but I’m glad as hell that class discussions aren’t, because in my career I have murdered them over and over again and there is taped evidence that shows it.


“The murder was done by Mr. Johnson, in Room B14, with poor questioning technique!”

So, the point is moving from a discussion model that is transactional to one that is interactional. Instead of TSTSTST, it’s TSSSSSSSSSSST (pronounced “tsssssst!”), where the teacher kicks things off, gets students responding to each other’s explanations, and only contributes again when it’s strategically necessary. Now, this is not to say the teacher has no role in the discussion — if you step out entirely, you may not like the results you get, especially early in the year.

But your role is facilitator, not arbiter. To use a comic book metaphor, you are Charles Xavier, not Judge Dredd. Keep people on track, set norms for respectful interaction, make sure everyone’s on the same team, but after that, let Storm and Wolverine and Nightcrawler take over, because they should be driving the story.


Of course they won’t! For their entire formal schooling career, they’ve largely been taught not to — sit still, be quiet, let the teacher talk. No matter how awesome and heartfelt your Day One speech is, it isn’t enough to wipe out a decade of indoctrination in the hidden curriculum. Talking to each other productively about a subject universally regarded as a barometer for “smartness” makes them vulnerable, and being an adolescent is all about trying to hide vulnerability. The good news is that this is actually fairly easy to do!

The bad news is, you’re gonna have to make some sacrifices.

Specifically, you gotta go buy some note cards:

Congratulations, you've transformed your classroom

Congratulations, you’ve just transformed your classroom!


Because here’s the problem with most classroom discussions. A small percentage of the kids raise their hands. The teacher is then faced with calling on one of that group (which leads to their thoughts becoming overrepresented and usually garnering resentment from other students), or cold-calling a student without their hand up (which tends to garner resentment from that student towards you). Or, worse, you just standing up front waiting for your beached whale of an undirected question to stand up and start dancing (protip: it usually doesn’t.)

Hands raised supports transaction. I need an answer, you provide it. I judge your answer, we move on. Cold-calling students is, according to at least Alfie Kohn, “fundamentally disrespectful“[fn2]. So what’s a teacher to do?

The answer is simple. You need a transparently random[fn3] method for calling on students in class. Hence, notecards. Each class has a color, each card has a student name. Whenever you are leading a discussion, have the set of cards in your hand. Ask your question, give wait time, then glance down at the card and say: “Well, what do you think, [name of student on card]?”

Now, here’s where the poker comes in. Keep your face completely neutral, no matter how brilliant or idiotic the response. Make eye contact, nod or purse your lips like you’re seriously considering what they said, then flip to the next card and say: “Do you agree with [name of student who just responded], [name of student on next card]?” Repeat as needed: neutral face, eye contact + nod, move to the next student. Once things have been well-discussed, make any clarifications or summaries that are important and move on.

This does many things, all at once:
1) It lowers the stakes — they can see you just literally pulled their card, so there’s no “why’d you pick me?” stigma, and kids with hands raised don’t wonder “why didn’t I get picked?”. If a kid isn’t prepared to answer, move on for a student or two, then circle back and ask whether those responses helped.
2) It makes your calling patterns more equitable — it eliminates all your unconscious assumptions about which students will provide useful responses
3) It lessens the friction of student-to-student interaction — you are explicitly asking them to respond to each other, so it’s not weird for them to say “I disagree” — and they can see that you didn’t pick “the smart kid” to shoot down their response, another toxic pattern that teachers fall into
4) It at least doubles the rate of student participation — because every question is receives at least two (and usually more) responses
5) It encourages students to pay attention — provided you shuffle the deck regularly (tho not too regularly as I like to get as wide a range of students to respond as I can)
6) It forces students to listen to each other — instead of relying on instant teacher feedback, they need to understand each other’s arguments and apply their own reasoning
7) It reduces your decision fatigue — you make a thousand decisions every day — don’t waste your brainpower on who to call on for every single question you ask

Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t allow students to raise hands or volunteer participation. It doesn’t mean you can’t cold-call students — you still can! For best results, just look down at whatever card happens to be on top before you say their name — they’ll never know!

Ssssshhh! Don't tell Alfie!

Ssssshhh! Don’t tell Alfie!

Respectful discourse doesn’t just happen. Tell students what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
-“Raise your hands if you want to say something, but don’t get mad if I don’t call on you, because I want to make sure we all have a chance to talk.”
-“I’m not going to tell you right or wrong right away, because it’s important for everyone to think about this and make their own decision.”
-“If your card comes up, you don’t need to respond right then. I do expect you to be able to comment on the responses other people give.”

Eventually, the notecards are more of a crutch than a necessity. Students will adapt to the discourse norms you’ve created and you can be more relaxed about how the discussion goes. But even on Day 179, I find them to be useful. I have them fill out the notecards on Day One and include stuff like parent info, their hobbies/interests, class schedules, etc. so it’s a one-stop shop for necessary info about that student. I use them to note when a student needs to make up work, or I need to have a conversation with them so I can’t forget.  I use them for discussions, board work, setting up groups, pretty much everything, to the point where if I did not have my set of notecards, I don’t know how I would run a classroom.

Try it out. If they don’t help transform your classroom, at least you’re only out five bucks. Hit me up at @ejexpress and I’ll mail you a refund.


[fn1] I had a group of friends that played obsessively in college and I had to stop hanging out with them because poker is the second-worst social game[fn4] ever. Here are the possible outcomes:

1) You win, which means your friends are losing money, which makes you feel guilty, because they really need that money to fuel their expensive craft beer habits.
2) You lose, which means you are losing money, which means you won’t have enough money to fuel your own expensive craft beer habit.

Now maybe that’s not your situation but honestly, if you spend hours sitting around a table with non-friends drinking cheap beer, you’ve already lost more than you should allow poker to take from you.

[fn2] Don’t worry, he’s wrong.

[fn3] pseudo-random is close enough, you pedants

[fn4] Worst one is Monopoly, for all the reasons.