‘Disciplined Discussion’ – As Easy as ABC

This practical post on a couple of teaching and learning strategies is wholly indebted to an excellent trio of posts from Doug Lemov, of ‘Practice Perfect‘ and ‘Teach Like A Champion‘ fame. His series is based on the concept of ‘disciplined discussion‘. I love this simple phrase as it neatly summarises an essential component of learning that we should think deeply about: carefully constructed and scaffolded student talk, with high quality feedback. There is a whole world of difference between students simply chatting away with the alleged intent of learning and the focused, disciplined discussion that Lemov advocates.

Lemov trio begins with part 1. This post explores how in some lessons that Doug observes he notices a tangible difference in the quality of student talk. When he considers the difference he notes in the mathematics lesson that the teacher is highly specific in keeping student responses tied to the core message of the lesson on rates of change. Keeping the students ‘inside the box‘, without stifling creativity, or damaging their sense of curiosity. This teacher led control of discussion is disciplined and valuable in the context of the lesson.

In Part II Lemov packs his post with practical ideas for discussion and quality feedback. There is useful guidance for quality feedback, habits of discussion and useful prompts to continue the discussion. My favourite part of the post is the explanation of ‘Direct Intentional Feedback‘. I will return to this in a moment.

Part III includes a useful video example of Socratic discussion. I have always been a fan of Socratic questioning circles, including the strategy in my most popular post on questioning: Questioning – Top Ten Strategies . I think it is a highly skilled approach to debate that can only ever being used sparingly, but it is worth the time undertaken to structure the activity. It can help develop upon the ideas and viewpoints of students in a given debate, whilst training students to listen intently.

Response to Doug Lemov: High Impact Questioning and Feedback

Returning to Lemov’s idea of ‘disciplined discussion‘, I think there is a real skill in disciplined questioning. Doug would describe it as ‘cold calling‘ – in England it is more commonly labelled the ‘no hands up‘ approach, whereat the teacher directs questions tailored at individual students. Whilst ‘no hands up‘ needn’t be used all the time, this mode of questioning is in my opinion the most effective. It can be precisely targeted and scaffolded to meet the needs of individual students.


‘The Question ladder‘: One simple strategy I apply when planning a lesson is to devise a sequence of questions that form a ladder, most often with an escalating degree of challenge and complexity. By thoughtfully constructing such questions, beginning with more closed , recall style questions, before utilising more open, conceptually challenging questions, you can lead students through any given topic. The questions form a ladder as each question builds upon their specific knowledge of the text or topic at hand. One example would be this sequence of questions I used with my A level English Literature class based on ‘Dr Faustus‘, focusing the question sequence on the concept of sinfulness and pride:

Q1. The classical Greek term for excessive pride is ‘hubris’ – who most famously devised this definition in his ‘Poetics’?

Q2. What other deadly sin is linked to pride in the play and why? Evidence?

Q3. Why does Marlowe use myths like Icarus and contemporary characters like the Pope and the Emperor to represent pride?

Q4. How does pride link Dr Faustus with Dr Frankenstein? Any other literary references?

Q5. ‘Pride comes before a fall’ is a common aphorism. How far does this aphorism neatly sum up the moral message of Marlowe’s play, ‘Dr Faustus’?

Prior to the lesson I thought carefully about who I would address each question to and who I’d aim to elicit a follow up response. Questions can be tailored to students. Like the Goldilocks principle, a question can be just hard enough to challenge, without being beyond a student. Clearly, question 4 is best addressed to a student who is well read and unfortunately that does not describe all of the students in the class. By targeting crafted questions that are scaffolded for individual students you can create better quality ‘disciplined discussion‘.

The next step is to enhance the discipline of the secondary responses by other students in the group. There is where ‘disciplined feedback‘ and ‘ABC feedback‘ comes into play.


ABC Feedback‘: This is one of my most effective teaching strategies. No handouts, cut ups or laminated cards. Simply clear, guided steps for quality feedback.

This simple strategy has probably had the biggest impact upon my practice, relative to the effort it takes to implement, over the last couple of years in the classroom. It is incredibly easy, but it adds a sophisticated degree of differentiation into the questioning process. By asking students to Agree with; Build upon; or Challenge the answers of other students it allows students to develop their ideas in a more disciplined fashion, whilst giving a helpful scaffold to their ideas. By selecting the right students based on an escalating degree of challenge, we can give them options – the Agree with often being the ‘easiest‘ response, but not always; whereas some students can Build upon and Challenge previous responses. By bouncing these questions around the room you can exemplify differentiated progress of the highest order.

Here is an example:

Teacher question: Which character would you most like to sit next to?

Student A answer: I would most like to sit next to Crooks. As he can read well, because he owns books, he could help me with answers and we could discuss our ideas.

Teacher question: Student B, give some ABC feedback based on A’s answer.

Student B answer: I would build upon that idea: Crooks would be good to get answers from, but he might result in me being excluded from my friends, just because I was speaking to a black man in such a racist place. Therefore I would probably challenge A’s answer, choosing Slim instead. Slim is also intelligent, but he is popular, and you have to think about having friends as well as giving good answers in class.

By bouncing the questions around the class, it increases the level of inclusivity, whilst also potentially increasing engagement and listening skills, as students know they may be asked to respond to the answers given by other students. I think this has an attendant benefit for student behaviour too as it ensures active listening and creates greater discipline to the classroom talk.

Once embedded, this simple code can become synonymous with disciplined peer discussion. You could create ‘talking trios‘ (any group larger than three often encourages individuals to lag and leave the ‘work‘ to others) that use ABC to structure their discussion.

What will stop them drifting off topics you may ask? One great strategy is to use ‘spotlighting‘. That is to say, circulate the room and listen in on debate, but intermittently stop near a group and raise your hand – a pre-arranged signal to the group to stop their debate and listen in to the group under the spotlight. The group that is ‘spotlighted‘ simply carry on their talk for a minute or so – giving the whole class the change to consider another debate; whilst simultaneously shining a light on how well a group is debating and using the ABC model.

Put simply, Doug Lemov focuses upon the heart of good pedagogy – as old as education itself – high quality discussion and feedback. It is at once incredibly simple and maddeningly difficult to get it right. ‘Disciplined discussion‘ and the discipline of ‘ABC feedback‘ just might be the answer.

24 thoughts on “‘Disciplined Discussion’ – As Easy as ABC”

  1. Hi, Alex. Doug here. Really enjoyed you post. Thought you’d be interested in this:

    I just saw a teacher who has students hold up two fingers (a specific, designated signal) to show they want to develop the previous idea. They raise their hand the normal way if they want to make a new comment but if they want to add on or comment on the previous, they raise their hand with two fingers elevated.

    One thing i like about it is that it causes students to self-manage and intentionally reflect on their purpose in participating: am i adding a new idea? am i developing or challenging.

    It also struck me that it helped the teacher to manage her discussions.. easy for HER to push on to new topics or stay on the current topic merely by managing who she called on.

    In reading your post it struck me that you could adapt this to the A B and C. ie have students intentionally signal which they wished to do, Then you could, say, scan the room and say “Hmmm… I’m seeing a lot of challenges. Let’s hear from some of them.” etc

    1. I Love that. Simple, instantaneous and easy to establish the habit. These are exactly the marginal gains we need to drive the improvement in core teaching pedagogy. I envy the chance you get to observe so many great teachers at work. I’m going to try that out. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Reading this has made my Saturday morning. I am currently teaching a very bright top set year 8 who have great ideas and are very vocal but need a structure in place to guide them. I have been experimenting with Robin Alexander’s Dialogic approach but ideally need something that will structure their responses and encourage them to think through and plan their verbal responses similarly to how they consider their written tasks. I can’t wait to try this out next week. Thank you very much to both contributors.

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  15. James Rayment

    I wholeheartedly agree with the comment below, that this is just the kind of sharing that creates a buzz to get back in the classroom on a Monday morning. Thank you. I’m an English NQT currently wrestling with managing discussions particularly with enthusiastic and bright students. I often find it hard to limit the contributions as I hate to see the disappointment when pupils are denied their say. This is perfect, and I love the finger idea too. Might it also be possible to hand the discussion over entirely to pupils, allowing the speaker to select the next response?

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  19. Dear Alex,

    My name is Yemisi Blake. I’m a Grants Assistant at Paul Hamlyn Foundation. We would like to invite you to an event we’re hosting with A New Direction on September 26th, ‘Where next for arts education research?’.

    Please respond with your email address and I’d be happy to send you an invite.

    Very best,

    Yemisi Blake

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