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Glad you asked

Robin Warren explains why he told his class to stop putting their hands up and encouraged them to talk to each other

The psychiatrist William Glasser once said that if a question is worth asking, it is worth asking of everyone. This statement - adopted by the literacy scheme Success For All - has provided my school with a new focus.

We have dropped the "hands up" approach in favour of everyone sharing their thoughts with a partner before one or two pairs give feedback to the class.

This was because we were concerned that the classroom was dominated by a handful of eager individuals who had answers for everything, while other, more reluctant, children, often with English as an additional language, were sidelined. Quiet children are disadvantaged by their inability to talk freely. Acute anxiety about talking in front of teachers and other pupils can be detrimental to learning. We asked what we could do about this.

A "no hands up" policy takes skill to implement, and for a few days it can turn your classroom into a nightmare with children continually calling-out.

Children suddenly have to forget years of putting up their hands and sitting up straight to ask or answer a question, and consequently there is a period of children putting their hand up, remembering the new rule and sitting straight with arms folded in order to be picked.

After a few days of spontaneous, if not tiresome, calling out, hands-up are no more. Children are asked a question: "How did Professor Dumbledore feel about Harry's dream?" Instead of the common and limiting class drone of "sad" or "happy" there is a different response. Ideally, children think about their answer for a few seconds, then turn to their partner - sometimes of similar ability, but usually mixed - and articulate their responses. This results in every child in the class sharing their answers.

Doesn't it?

Not always. Half the time, children think for a nanosecond before turning to their partners, gabbling at the same time and folding their arms again, ready to be praised for being good sharers, or for one child to take over completely, blurting out their answer and turning back with arms folded, leaving their confused partner still waiting to communicate their response. This is not what we want.

Talk partners will only ever be successful with good teaching. Talking has to be taught. How can children think when they are told to, when they might not know what thinking looks like? This is a process that requires modelling. I often use a think aloud to model how my brain responds to a text. I wonder how Harry must be feeling now or I wonder if Elmer realises he is different? I do this frequently, not necessarily revealing why, especially with younger children. However, I often say: "I am thinking that..." I also encourage older children to write down any questions while they are reading.

As a Year 6 teacher, I have spent the past few months refining my questioning to improve my class's comprehension. I use "think alouds" to ask: "What type of question is this? What am I being asked to say?"

I have used Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy of levels of abstraction in questions to focus and polish my questions, enabling children to ask: is this a knowledge question? Is this an application question? Is this an evaluative question? This enables me to help them develop more depth to their ideas.

For children who find it difficult to speak out in class or for whom English is a new language, this method is very effective. It provides them with time to formulate an answer in their heads, a forum for them to rehearse their answer and have it confirmed or challenged by their partner, without the pressure of speaking in front of 30 peers.

This is a technique that has given me more control in the classroom. It increases the pace of the lesson, and the information received allows you to stop, discuss and evaluate answers to support or challenge the texts.

Robin Warren is a Year 6 teacher and newly qualified teacher student mentor at a north London primary school

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