Resources: Discussion Stoplight

Jan 12, 2023

The discussion stoplight makes visible varied kinds of contributions young students often make during class discussions. Identifying these or additional kinds of contributions during a discussion can help students reflect, facilitating greater awareness of how their contributions relate to those from other students. This tool was originally designed for early elementary, however we also share adaptations for other grades.

Teaching Considerations

During a class discussion, many ideas will surface. It can be difficult at times to follow along with the flow of ideas and how they connect. Here are 4 tips for using a tool like the discussion stoplight in the classroom.

Tip 1: Identify what kinds of contributions you want to start with and build toward in the classroom. The three kinds of contributions shown in the discussion stoplight template can be a useful starting point for identifying how ideas from different speakers relate. However, depending on what grade you teach and what experiences students have had, you may want to start with a different set or work towards others. For instance, teachers have explicitly introduced and worked towards “agree,” “thinking differently,” “question,” and more.

Tip 2: Create visual ways of showing conversations as they unfold. It can be helpful for students to visualize what kinds of talk are happening. Here are three ways you might try; in all cases, the one(s) creating the visual could be the teacher and/or students:

    • Pointing: As the discussion flows, point to what each student is doing on the discussion stoplight.
    • Tallying: Make tallies next to different kinds of contributions so the class can see what is happening collectively over time.
    • Mapping: Create discussion maps that trace the flow of conversation among students and potentially the kinds of connections in play. (For more guidance, check out Hands Down, Speak Out.)

Tip 3: Consider using hand signals or sign language as ways of participating. Especially in elementary school, classes often have gestures that students can use to communicate, including hand signals for the kinds of contributions seen in the discussion stoplight (like new idea, add on, thinking differently, etc.). Using signals is a powerful way to support language development for multilingual students and it can provide additional avenues for students’ participation, supporting more equity of voice in the classroom.

Tip 4: Expand the kinds of contributions in play with students over time. Let the tool grow with your class. Adding ways of contributing over time, especially ones that emerge naturally from students, can help students consider more nuanced ways of responding to each other and highlight how talk changes as the classroom community changes. For instance, below is a set of ways a high school class thought “probing questions” might sound.

Examples of probing questions that students came up with as a class. A few probing questions include: How did you get that? What made you think that? Why did you think that? Why do you think that is important? Can you back that up? I like that idea but what about this? Where did you find that? How did you test that?


Many of the ways teachers and students talk and act in school conform to unwritten, unspoken rules and routines that often reflect white middle class ideals. These cultural norms can create barriers to participation for those who are unfamiliar with them. When teachers explicitly name such norms and routines, they can help students to recognize them. Students and teachers are then better able to navigate, challenge, and expand ways of participating and knowing.

Further, students can be purposefully excluded from science because of how people with power see and position them in the classroom (Stroupe, 2023). Students want to feel that they and their ideas matter, and that they are safe and valued as important contributors. How students are positioned, and whether teachers take a deficit or asset-based perspective toward the vast experiences that shape what students think and know, have immediate and longer-term impacts for individuals and the classroom community.

Questions to consider when using a discussion stoplight:

  • From an access standpoint, how can we make explicit what the kinds of contributions look and sound like? 
  • Who will be involved in identifying and tracing the different kinds of contributions during discussions? In defining the kinds of contributions that are meaningful in the first place?
  • How can we acknowledge more than verbal participation?
  • How does addressing discussion norms acknowledge systematic power imbalances and the centering of white cultural norms in education?
  • How can additional contribution types expand students’ ways of knowing and explaining in science?


Supporting Kindergarteners in Connecting Ideas. In kindergarten discussions, students often want to share their thinking without much attention to how their thinking connects to their peers’ ideas. Kaia Tomokiyo used a discussion stoplight to provide common language for her and her students to consider how they’re expressing ideas. As she describes further in this video, Kaia wanted students to know that it’s okay to repeat an idea you agree with, or to add on to someone else’s idea.


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This site is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through Award #1907471 and #1315995