Monday, February 9, 2015

Teaching Conceptually using Tug-of-War

Currently, our G4 students, with the help of their teachers, are trying to understand that maintaining health requires knowledge of body systems and the diseases that affect them. They are trying to understand this big idea through the conceptual lenses of causation and responsibility as they inquire into one’s personal responsibility for health.

To guide students through this inquiry, a G4 teacher recently used the Tug-of-War thinking routine from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison (p. 199). After working through this routine with her students, the teacher invited others on her team to analyze, discuss, and reflect on her students’ thinking. Here’s her story:

1. Start with a concept.

For this particular learning engagement, the teacher wanted the students to understand that choices individuals make not only affect the individual, but others around them too.

2. Pick a specific, concrete example of a person, place, situation, or thing that illustrates that concept.

This teacher decided to guide her students through an exploration of the recent measles outbreak in the United States. Investigating the facts around this concrete situation would allow her students to construct understanding of the big idea that choices individuals make (particularly about their health) not only affect the individual, but others around them too.

3. Create an opportunity for students to explore that concrete example.

First, students read and viewed a diverse variety of complex texts.

The students went through the texts as a whole group, a format appropriate for reading such complex texts. To understand more about how to support students as they read complex texts, learn from the experts: Fisher & Frey’s article “Close Reading in Elementary Schools”.

After learning more about the facts around this recent outbreak, the teacher drew a tug-of-war rope across the middle of the whiteboard. The class identified and framed the two opposing sides of the dilemma that they were exploring. They labeled one end of the tug-of-war rope “Yes, all people should have to get a vaccine” and on the other end of the rope they wrote “No, people should be allowed to file an exemption.”

Students then generated “tugs” or reasons that “pull you toward,” that is, support each side of the dilemma. The students wrote their ideas on individual sticky notes. Because this was the first time the teacher had led the students through this thinking routine, she required each of them to write a tug for each of the opposing sides.

After, as a class, the students determined the strength of each tug and placed it on the tug-of-war rope, placing the strongest tugs at the farthest end of the rope and the weaker tugs more toward the center.

4. Check for understanding by having them write a concept statement.

The teacher did not have her students write out a concept statement at the end to check for conceptual understanding. She did say that having the students make their thinking visible on the sticky notes and listening to the ensuing discussion was one way to check for conceptual understanding. However, to be assured that she knew what all of her students understood about the concepts of decisions, their consequences, responsibility, and causation, the teacher decided that next time as a follow-up, she would want the students to draft some statement at the end to check for their understanding of these timeless, abstract, universal, and transferable concepts.

5. Reflect on their thinking and decide next steps.

During the reflection meeting, other important points came up:

  • The students were very engaged during this thinking routine.
  • The thinking routine “I Used to Think …, Now I Think …” could have also been used in combination with Tug-of-War to be able to show students how their own thinking about this topic had changed.
  • Right now, students are learning about determining what is fact and what is opinion during their focused literacy lessons. As students were determining the strength of each tug, they naturally started classifying tugs with facts as stronger and those that had opinions as weaker. The teacher noticed that students were applying their understanding of fact and opinion in a real-life context, thus solidifying their understanding of this literacy concept.
After reading about how this teacher used the thinking routine “Tug-of-War” with her students to examine perspectives, reason, identify complexities of a current event and construct a deep understanding of concepts, how could you or have you used this thinking routine with your own students?


  1. Really great idea, Ryan. Thanks for sharing! Love all the photos!

    1. Thanks Judi. I can't wait to see in which direction your class takes it!