Conversacolor: The Best Classroom Discussion Activity You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

We’ve all been there. An instructor tries to get a class discussion going, but after a few half-hearted hand-raises, everyone sits there in awkward silence, wishing that the more talkative students would step in and do their thing, or that the earth would open up and swallow the classroom already, just to put everyone out of their misery.

The instructor stands there, hope dying in their eyes. Maybe they cold-call a student or two out of desperation, their cheerful smile slowly becoming a rictus.



Or they make the “Anyone? Bueller?” reference, and realize that they are SO OLD because none of their students has ever even seen this movie, and now they’ve made a reference that absolutely no one understood, and now things are even more awkward.

Other times, class discussion will more or less chug along — and sure, it’s dominated by the two or three high-achievers in the class and that one dude who just likes to hear himself talk, while everyone else’s attention wanders to the graffiti on the desks and the weird coppery stain on the ceiling that kind of looks like David Bowie. (Or maybe Tilda Swinton.) But at least that kind of “class discussion” bears some resemblance to a conversation. Sort of.

skinnerAfterwards, when the students have left and the chairs stand empty in accusing rows, the instructor will gather his or her things, and sigh, and wonder what went wrong, and wish that things were different. And some instructors — the Principal Skinners of the world — will find themselves growing ever so slightly more bitter in their souls, and decide that there must be something wrong with the students.

Most instructors, though, will recognize that there must be a better way, and will fiddle and tinker with their lessons and ask more experienced teachers for advice until they figure it out. Hopefully. Eventually.

In truth, there are lots of “right” ways to  teach almost anything, many paths to the same destinations. But sometimes, it’s nice to stumble upon an activity or tool that someone else designed and other people have used that just works.

Conversacolor is one of those activities.

I came across it years ago, back in my first year of teaching as a graduate student, and I’ve been using and recommending it ever since. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how I came across it, but it was developed by Cynthia Scheinberg at Mills College, and seems to have been spreading in recent years. Some of us are, ahem, rather enthusiastic about sharing the Good News about Conversacolor.

Have you welcomed conversacolor into your classroom?

To use conversacolor in your classroom, you need only simple materials: a set of colored index cards for each student in red, green, white, blue, and yellow, (or whatever set of five colors appeals to you — adjust accordingly) and handouts outlining the rules of the game.

Each card has a different meaning to signal the kind of contribution the student wants to make in the conversation:

  • red = new point or idea
  • green = develop or respond to an idea
  • white = transition between ideas
  • blue = question of clarification
  • yellow = challenge another student’s card choice if the wrong card may have been used

Students should arrange their chairs so that everyone else in the class is in their line of sight before they begin.

The student who spoke first chooses the next speaker from among the students raising their cards, and each subsequent speaker chooses the next. Blue and yellow cards are priority cards — if a blue or yellow card is up, it must be addressed before the discussion continues on.

In the case of a yellow card, the class discusses and decides together if the card choice was appropriate or whether another card choice would have been better.

conversacolor index cardsBecause the instructor does not need to facilitate the discussion, students practice speaking directly to one another, and practice being attentive listeners, rather than “performing” knowledge for the teacher. Because the student must hold up a card to join the discussion, he or she must consider what kind of contribution he or she is making, developing meta-cognitive skills.

To encourage participation from all students, I often add a coda that students can speak no more than three times (barring questions of clarification or yellow cards), and then must wait until everyone has contributed at least once before speaking again. This prevents the most talkative students from completely dominating the discussion, instead motivating them to encourage quiet classmates to speak up.

If needed, I emphasize that we really, really want to hear what everyone has to say by adding a rule that students must participate in the discussion at least once to earn full participation credit for the day, and remind them that holding up a green card and saying “I agree with you — good point” will be entirely sufficient.

Once they’ve spoken once, those quieter students are more likely to talk again.

Because I don’t need to facilitate, I get to focus much more of my attention on what is being said, without worrying about who I need to nudge, cajole, or call on next. The first couple of times we do conversacolor, a class might be a little quiet, requiring some prompting on my part, but many classes pick it up and run with it right away, and even those that don’t usually hit their stride by the third session. I’ve found it to be well-worth the effort, as it primes students to be ready to step up (and step back as needed) in other types of discussion and group work.

Every class is different, so I can’t promise that conversacolor will save you. But if your class discussions are more like class mostly-sitting-quietlies, or if your class discussions tend to function mostly as opportunities for the strongest students to prove they did the reading, give it a try. Conversacolor’s brilliance is in its simplicity, and as you can see, it’s easy enough to tweak the ground rules as needed to suit the temperament of your class.

conversacolorWith modifications, you could easily adapt conversacolor to younger grades. Even kindergartners can understand the basic principle of holding up colored cards to indicate whether they have a question, want to contribute a new idea, or want to respond to someone else, though the instructor might need to be a more active facilitator at first. For English language learners in particular, this would be a great way to provide valuable opportunities for classroom conversation.

My semester just started, and I used conversacolor in our second class session as a way of structuring a discussion about classroom agreements. My students discussed — genuinely discussed! — what they expected and needed of each other to be an effective and respectful classroom community. They each created a name tag to hang off the front of their desks, so that they could learn classmates’ names during the conversacolor session. Meanwhile, I was out of the way at the whiteboard, listening and taking notes.

The next time we do conversacolor, we’ll probably be discussing a challenging reading or a question relating to the themes of the unit. My students will already know how conversacolor works. They’ve already started building a classroom community, so even students who see themselves as shy are starting to feel more confident about speaking. I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.


“Conversacolor” background image source.


One thought on “Conversacolor: The Best Classroom Discussion Activity You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

  1. Thank you so much for posting this and in such detail. Prof Cynthia Scheinberg was my professor when she developed this, and I got to see her in action. It’s invaluable! I appreciate the reminder and now that I’m teaching I am planning to utilize it again.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s