Make Discussion More Inclusive with the Raised Block

Facilitating discussion is one of those teaching tasks that is sneakily quite challenging: you need to have goals (beyond creating noise); keep the discussion on track to achieve those goals in the allotted time; manage the speaking order; address incorrect information or offensive remarks; enforce norms and rules; actively listen to students and capture themes; and encourage students to listen and respond to each other. Increasing inclusion is its own challenge–ensuring that every student has the access, opportunity, and encouragement to actively engage in the discussion and learn by being part of it.

A particular challenge can be the Dominant Derailer: the student(s) who speak up far more than their peers, sometimes on a pet topic that isn’t aligned with the learning goals, and has the result of shutting out other voices. When Dominant Derailers run the discussion, they turn their peers into Silent Spectators, who are no longer actively listening but instead just waiting for the ‘discussion’ to end.

I’ve already written with some tips on addressing or preventing a Dominant Derailer, but today I want to introduce a new tool that can help with this problem and others: the Raised Block.

Blocks are what they sound like–small wooden blocks–and can be used in place of raised hands in a classroom discussion. Invented by Dr. Bryan Leese, a retired Navy Captain and professor at Joint Forces Staff College, the blocks grew out of several observations: the value of the ‘raise hand’ button on Zoom calls; the use of up or down votes historically by military promotion boards; the value of classroom response systems like clickers; and the one-finger, two-finger approach to managing discussion, where 1 finger signals a new thought and 2 fingers is an immediate response with a request to jump the queue. Blocks capture all of this, and in our research, now out with International Studies Perspectives, show some benefits for increasing the number and variety of voices in the classroom, particularly for non-native English speakers.

Blocks work like this: Each student is handed a block, and asked to use it instead of raising their hand. It is painted in two colors (with the option to brand a symbol on either end a tactile way to differentiate the two), and when students have nothing to add to a discussion, they leave it lying flat. If they have a response to a question or a new point (a 1 finger), they put the block up, with the Red side up. If they have an immediate follow up, they put Blue up. Alternatively, you can use for straw polling, with Blue=yes, Red=No or some other determination, or you can use them to signal task completion, asking students to put their blocks up when they finish working on an in-class prompt (no more asking ‘does anyone need more time? over and over). You can even use them to control discussion pace, by saying that you won’t call on anyone until 3 (or 4, or 10) blocks are up, giving slower processors time to consider what they might contribute.

An image of three wooden blocks, painted red and blue. The Red Block shows the Red half of the block standing on edge, noting the user has an answer or new point. The Blue Block shows the blue side standing on edge, proposing a follow-up; and the final image shows the block at rest, indicating no desire to speak.
Photos of the Blocks in action, taken by Dr. Leese.

Blocks allow instructors to to control the pace and participants of discussion. For contentious topics, common in political science, this can have the value of instituting some order over who speaks, stopping the process of students jumping in on their own (which at other times can be very valuable). The Dominant Derailer can’t just jump in–and yes, they will likely get frustrated by that, as we found in our study. What happens with strong Block discipline, though, is that the discussion slows down, students listen to each other (to determine if their block should be red or blue), and a more equitable speaking order arises. No longer can those students who raise their hands the highest demand to be called on, while those who raise just a finger are overseen. Everyone has the same signal, and once an instructor trains themselves to look for Blocks, not hands, it creates a more inclusive environment.s

Our initial study focuses on student perceptions regarding discussion, and we did find evidence of students noticing a difference when Blocks are used. In particular, student comments noted that those who self-identified as being eager to talk felt inhibited by blocks, while others noted that students who tended not to speak as much spoke more when blocks were used. International students observed this more than American students in our study, suggesting that for them, it was a more inclusive pedagogy than raising hands.

Of course, Blocks are not going to be a universal solution. They require instructors to commit to using them–poor use of Blocks is worse than sticking to raised hands, as students can get frustrated when their Block is up and they are not called on. They won’t work well in very large or very small classes either–in the former, the blocks can be hard to see in a large lecture hall; while in the latter, a small group discussion is easier to manage. The type of material matters as well: in my research methods class, the blocks were not necessary, probably because, dare I say it, students don’t get worked up over methods the way they might in other classes, so students weren’t clamoring over each other to be heard. For those who worry that the Blocks might seem juvenile, I can say that we conducted this study on career military officers in their late 20s to early 50s, and very, very few of our subjects reported seeing it as a childish activity, so it should flourish in an undergraduate environment.

All told, the Block is an exciting new tool that can be used not only to manage challenging discussions, but also as a way of helping students understand the value of including different perspectives in the conversation. If you use them, openly discuss with students why: that while dynamic discussion can be valuable in some contexts, it means some voices dominate and you want to foster an environment where every study who wants to share their perspective has the opportunity to do so.

For more on the Raised Block, including instructions on how to make your own set, see our paper in ISP!