Student Engagement

Adapting Chalk Talks to Promote Student Engagement

A teacher describes how he modifies a thinking routine developed by Harvard’s Project Zero to keep it from becoming too routine.

November 6, 2023
Liderina / iStock

In my classroom, a giant piece of poster board showcases a conceptual question: “How does reading texts and works from diverse creators assist in finding common themes?” 

Students’ responses surround the inquiry. I identify some that use two quotations from Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle” to support or refute an argument. I notice that a student who prefers not to voice their ideas in class has written six perceptive sentences showing immense engagement with the question. 

These observations remind me of the numerous benefits that chalk talks can have in the classroom, especially when teachers build upon the strategy in novel ways.


Chalk talks—created by Project Zero, an educational research center at Harvard University—ask students to respond, in writing, to open-ended questions penned on large paper. The central inquiries should be conceptual or debatable—such as those often at the core of Institutional Baccalaureate (IB) and project-based learning (PBL). 

To facilitate the activity, place large paper at different desks for student rotation and writing. Organize students in groups of three or four, then ask them to respond to the questions without talking. This technique encourages a silent conversation. 

Remember: Chalk talk is a routine, not an activity. Routines can be used repeatedly in the classroom. Ron Ritchart, one of the creators of the chalk talk, describes it and other thinking routines as “tools for thinking [that] must be introduced as such, not as an activity. We want to make thinking a routine endeavor in our classrooms so that students become good at it.”

Although chalk talks were originally designed for predictability, I’ve found that students can disengage with too much routine. By varying chalk talks, we can balance routine with learner investment. 


Ideally, mid-unit reflection provides students (and educators) sufficient time to make adjustments. An efficient, low-preparation reflection method may give educators even more encouragement to reflect in the midst of a unit—for example, using previous chalk talks as a launchpad for class reflection and discussion. 

To do so, invite students to read previous chalk talk responses and reflect upon (and/or discuss) how their thinking altered in response to the activity. Ask students to justify their reflection by citing their original response(s) on a sticky note. When students cite themselves, they provide evidence of their changing thought processes, demonstrating a form of metacognition.

These reflective chalk talks can produce valuable bulletin board material, making thinking visible throughout the learning environment.


You can use a ChatGPT chalk talk variant to make the experience more dynamic. Before chalk talk commences, generate two different AI opinions in response to an open-ended question utilizing this AI “opinion request” framework. Print out the AI responses and paste them to the chalk talk paper alongside the central questions. 

Next, ask students to read the question(s), look at ChatGPT’s responses, and then respond to ChatGPT’s opinions. After this variant of chalk talk is complete, students can defend ChatGPT’s or their own responses in class using a pop-up debate.


Using an interdisciplinary approach, students can make connections between different subjects through chalk talks, deepening their understanding of interrelationships between academic content areas. 

Collaboration among teaching staff is the first step to an interdisciplinary chalk talk; in a PBL context, educators can share their units’ driving questions. In an IB curriculum framework, teachers can share conceptual and debatable questions to find commonalities between units. I’ve found that these conversations can often occur during the duration of a lunch break, meaning no extra meetings are required.  

Once you’ve kindled a professional collaboration and gathered information from other subject teachers, try using the following frames to make a chalk talk question interdisciplinary:

In science, you are currently learning… How does this concept/topic/driving question connect to… (something from your course)/subject?

In our class, you are learning the following skills (list the skills here). Explain how these skills are supporting you in your _____ class, particularly with the _____ topic/conceptual question/debatable question/driving question.

Our unit’s driving question/inquiry question(s) is/are… Explain how this connects, or does not connect, to another subject for which you are learning. 


Facilitating a chalk talk in a high-traffic school hallway invites students from multiple grade levels to respond. Prepare enough materials to support this increase in writers, and consider what questions might be general enough as to not require specific content knowledge, allowing students from all grade levels to participate and see connections to their lives. 

One example from my practice is “To what extent should teachers use games to educate you?” Students had a lot to write on the topic, and their opinions were, to my surprise, quite varied. Here are some other examples you might consider:  

  • Evaluate the use of artificial intelligence for learning. Do you believe it hinders or enhances learning? Cite your personal experience to explain why/why not. 
  • What is the line between noise and music? 
  • Is mathematics artistic? 
  • How do we know a theorem is valid? 
  • Who owns land? 
  • To what extent does literature impact how we perceive love? 
  • Does a scientist need to be a good writer?
  • Should someone have the same access to health care when they make poor health choices? 

Whether at the classroom or schoolwide level, routines give students a sense of predictability and structure. However, too much routine can cause students to check out. By keeping some elements of the original chalk talk intact while introducing creativity through the above approaches, educators can tap into students’ background knowledge while keeping learning and engagement fresh.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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