The complexity within simplicity: A look at Think Pair Share

By Dr Barrie Bennett

This article was first published in the February 2017 edition of Western Teacher.

I’ll start with a reminder of the focus of these mini-articles and then briefly review the first two articles before shifting into a look at Think Pair Share (TPS). I end with a rubric for assessing our use of TPS in the classroom.

These mini-articles are designed around making a difference in the life chances and learning chances of students; and on appreciating and understanding the complexity of the teaching and learning process.

In the first article, I focused on understanding the complexity of instruction by clarifying words we used around instruction so that we sensed how instructional concepts like safety, interest, accountability etc., get enacted through how we select and integrate a number of instructional skills (least complex methods), tactics (mid-complex methods) and strategies (the most complex methods).

I also discussed how the research in areas like brain research, multiple intelligence, students at risk etc., guide teachers to select and integrate those methods that best meet the needs of their students … given the time they have and curriculum they teach.

In the second article I shifted to looking at how instructional power emerges from how we develop our skill level in selecting and integrating multiple instructional methods (those skills, tactics, and strategies).

If it is less likely we can trust our assessment of students the less powerful our instructional methods and skills as teachers are.

In this third article, I shift into the practical area of what we actually do to increase the chances students learn, by taking one of about 200 group structures and developing an appreciation of just how complex the teaching and learning process can be.

We’ve all heard of Think Pair Share (TPS), a process developed by Lyman back in the 1980s. Teachers have most likely being doing TPS much longer, but Lyman gave it a name.

My Bachelor of Education students at the University of Toronto came back after their first practicum, and in discussing their experience, they said: “You told us that TPS was one of the simplest of about 200 group structures, but when we tried to implement it, we found it a lot harder to do that we thought.”

So, I asked them to brainstorm in small groups all the things you have to consider if you want TPS to work effectively. What would you say? I list their answers below.

What if you have an odd number of students, because the person left out is always the student who is not popular?

How do you decide who should work with who? Some kids won’t work together.

Even when we had an even number sometimes we had a student who no-one wanted to work with; how do you get them to work with that student?

How do you hold them all accountable to talk so that one person does not do all the talking?

If you don’t frame your questions properly and use the right amount of wait time then it all unravels.

You need to teach them how to attentively listen, to use quiet voices, to suspend judgment, to make sure they have equal voice in sharing.

You really have to understand how to respond to all types of student responses: correct, incorrect, partially correct, a no response, a guess, a silly response, a convoluted response. You get them all.

You really have to make sure they are safe. Don’t judge their answers right away or they stop sharing.

Importantly, TPS is one of the more simple group structures … so imagine the skill set you need to do a Jigsaw or Academic Controversy.

Obviously, if our students cannot do a TPS, we should most likely not have them doing Jigsaw or Academic Controversy or two/three Person Interviews etc. Why enter the Boston Marathon if you can’t run around the block?

Below is a rubric for self-assessing your enactment of Framing Questions. This is only one of the components you need to deal with to enact TPS. Do you sense the complexity within the simplicity of the teaching and learning process?




All students actively involved

Few students are actively involved

Most students are usually actively involved

Most to all students actively involved most of the time

Teacher balances accountability and safety

Seldom – often one or the other but not both; less effective

More often both; reasonable effective

Almost always both; enacted effectively

Appropriate Wait Time

Working at it but not always appropriate

Usually applies it and most often appropriate

Almost always applies it precisely

Teacher aware of the level of thinking regarding a taxonomy of thinking such as Bloom’s taxonomy

Knows about Bloom’s but struggling to apply it effectively; students do not know about Blooms

Understands Bloom’s and becoming more skilled at applying; Students beginning to learn Bloom’s

Understands and effectively applies Bloom’s taxonomy most of the time; students also skilled at Bloom’s

Responds effectively to student responses

At times, but not always that effective

Becoming more proficient; usually quite skilled

Effectively and consistently responds effectively

Teacher shifts from Covert to Overt

At times, but too often not intentional

Most of the time; usually when required, but not a lot of variety

Most of the time or when appropriate, uses variety in enacting

Teacher distributes questions

A few students respond to most questions

Most students more frequently involved

Most to all students appropriately involved

Dr Barrie Bennett is an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is an expert in the fields of teacher learning, instructional intelligence, and pedagogy.