Creating Wicked Students: An Idea for Class Discussion

Meaningful Connections

By Paul Handstedt

I began reading Creating Wicked Students by Paul Hanstedt (2018) some time ago. While my progress has been slower than I’d hoped, but passage inspired me to think of a novel idea for class discussion:

Consider the following: Three students are assigned a book chapter. The first one reads the chapter carefully then makes an outline of the chapter using key words and phrases in the text. The second student finishes the chapter then answers a number of questions at the end, referring to the text when necessary. The third student finishes the chapter then generates a list of questions that might be useful to discuss with the class the next day.

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After laying out the hypothetical, Hanstedt asks the reader which student is most likely to recall the material in meaningful ways two days, two weeks, or two months later?

The scenario struck me as salient for its many implications for TWP. All that we’ve heard and read in the CPLC drives home the importance of authenticity, learner agency, and curiosity, exactly what Hanstedt is touching on here.

Before answering, let’s recap, giving names to the students:

  • Alex creates an outline of the chapter’s main points
  • Bailee answers the end-of-chapter questions from the text
  • Chris generates a list of questions that would be useful in class discussion

Hanstedt says only the third student, Chris, is likely to achieve meaningful understanding of the content because, he says:

“Deciding what questions to write down requires thinking about the material and making decisions about what matters and what doesn’t.” This thought process nudges Chris to recall previous discussions, questions, and experiences. It also prompts Chris to consider the types of questions that have stymied students before, and to ponder the sort of responses each question is likely to elicit.

By connecting the present content to both past experience and future discussion in this way, the student is “mentally engaged” and “emotionally invested”. Hanstedt cites research that suggests “firing these established networks” increases memory in meaningful ways (Kole and Healy, 2007).

Although Handstedt doesn’t mention it, this activity helps alleviate the problem of inert knowledge, a phenomenon in which pupils can retain the information, but are unable to apply it practically, and perhaps only long enough to regurgitate it on an exam.

[ See also my post about authenticity, which includes a couple paragraphs on inert knowledge. The fact that thinking about Hanstedt’s ideas hearkened to related ideas from a book I’d read previously proves his point. Bonus points for metacognition! ]

Class Activity

Having thought about Hanstedt’s hypothetical in the context of authenticity and learner agency, I had an idea to modify the well-known think/pair/share formula. This exercise would incentivize mental engagement and promote student accountability. Incorporated into class discussions, it could be done once, a handful of times, or repeatedly throughout the course.

The classic think/pair/share activity


As the instructor assigns readings, videos, or other materials, they ask the students to return to class with two open-ended questions inspired by the material.

It’s important for the instructor to emphasize that the questions should not have well-known, definitive answers. Here are some good examples:

  • What are some of the costs of remediating the international e-waste problem?
  • Is there something you wish you had done to prevent cyberbullying?
  • Are efforts to adapt to climate change better than measures to prevent it?

Individually brainstorming such questions would evoke the meaningful connections Hanstedt described. And by making students accountable to one another, it would likely increase assignment completion.


Then, in class, initiate discussion by having the students pair off and take turns asking and answering each others’ questions.

The teacher could allot between 5 and 10 minutes for this step, allowing more time as needed.


Finally, the class would rejoin for a plenary discussion of the material. Students eager to share their questions and answers should be invited to do so. At the teacher’s discretion, inviting, nudging, or cajoling the withdrawn students could be done with care. Calling on students at times should tend to diversify the perspective. It would also help establish a participatory expectation as a class norm.


Paul Hanstedt wrote about how thoughtful brainstorming fosters meaningful memory of material. By adapting the simple think/pair/share approach, teachers can promote learner-driven inquiry and authentic learning. The end result should be deeper engagement with and understanding of our wicked problems.


Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students : designing courses for a complex world (First). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The aims of education & other essays. Macmillan.

Kole, J.A., Healy, A.F., 2007. Using prior knowledge to minimize interference when learning large amounts of information. Memory & Cognition.. doi:10.3758/bf03195949

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