Instructional Strategy: Numbered Heads Together

Once in a workshop I heard a teacher describe a group of five or six kids in her elementary class as “the gorillas” – the crew that always raised their hands and emitted a low “oooh-oooh-oooh” until they were called on.  The gorillas can be wonderful when they keep the discussion moving and reassure us that the lesson is working, but there are probably other students in the class who rarely or never raise their hands who either know the answer or would benefit from working through it with the teacher.  Teachers often resist calling on students whose hands are not raised for fear of embarrassing them or putting them on the spot if they are unprepared or don’t have the right answer.

Next time your lesson calls for problem-solving, making inferences, or dealing with complexity, consider using the Numbered Heads Together strategy in order to increase the diversity of voices in your classroom (and perhaps give the gorillas some practice listening to their peers). Put students in small groups of three or four – students sitting close by are fine – and have them number off so that each student in every group has a number from 1-3 or 1-4. Students will know their own numbers, but the teacher won’t know who has each number.  Students work together to complete the short activity or practice from your lesson and each student makes sure she has captured and can explain the group’s responses. Then the teacher can randomly select a number – the 2s for instance – and whoever is member #2 in each group reports out on the answer or group’s process for finding a response.

The strategy allows students to engage with peers, practice their responses in a small group first, and talk to the whole class with the confidence of representing a group rather than being on their own.

Quick tips: if you are using groups of 4 but one group has only 3 students, have student #1 also be #4.  If one group has an extra student, let two students share a number and answer together if their number is called.  Feel free to switch up your number anytime – if the 2s in your first two groups have already thoroughly answered the first question, switch it up to the 4s to address the next item.

Claire Lambert

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