“Yes, and…”: Encouraging Students to Talk in Class

One of the key rules of improv comedy is that of ‘yes, and…’  This means that you have to accept the scene as it is laid out, and then add to it. You are never supposed to deny the scene or whatever element that another player has added, but instead to accept and respond to their contribution and then add your own. Denying the scene leads to the end of the act.

This rule, when applied to the classroom, can be an effective device for encouraging students to speak during discussion.  Students need encouragement: they need to be made to feel that their contributions matter, or they will stop contributing. We may be looking for particular answers when we pose a question, but if we make our students feel that their contributions are not correct or welcome, then they will leave the scene.

“Yes, and…” in the classroom, then, means always responding positively to a student comment, even when it is objectively wrong.  It doesn’t always mean using these specific words, but it does mean showing appreciation and value for the act of participating, and then doing something with the contribution they have made. It also means avoiding ‘no, that’s wrong’ and ‘yes, but…’ type responses. Let’s break this down into its two parts:

Yes: Accepting the comment

For a correct answer, this may be as simple as saying ‘yes!’ ‘perfect!’ ‘exactly right’.  For an answer that’s partly right, or dancing around the correct answer, a response might be ‘good–that’s one piece of the puzzle’ or ‘X, you have put us on the right path’.  Perhaps restate what they said in slightly more complete terms, and then ask them if that’s a fair restatement of what they said, and wait for a nod.  For a completely off the wall or wrong answer, but a sincere attempt (that is, not someone trying to be disruptive in some way), you can respond with a simple but genuine ‘thanks’, and then ask what others think.  That can also be an opportunity to get other students to critique the answers instead of you.

, and…

Students often stop listening when their peers start talking.  This means that insights that originate from the students are often completely missed by others.  In the ‘and…’ part of the response, the goal is to repeat or rephrase the conversation and then move it forward. You might do this after each comment, or after several contributions, or at the end of the class–it depends on the flow of the conversation and how much control you like to keep over discussion.  Rephrasing can be a great way to cut off that student who keeps talking long after their point is made: wait for a breath and then say ‘so X, I think you are trying to say YYY, is that correct?’  Even a comment that is not quite on target can be reframed as a piece of the puzzle that the students can continue to build on.  The key here is, having accepted the student’s point, tie it into the conversation somehow.  Do not simply acknowledge it and move on to the next person without comment.

These kinds of techniques help create a supportive environment where student fears of looking stupid are reduced, and they are made to feel that their contribution matters. And such contributions DO matter–they can form the fabric of the class discussion, as long as there is someone there to help weave all the different strands together.