Ban on putting your hand up

27th January 2006 at 00:00
East London head stops age-old classroom practice, saying it damages learning. William Stewart reports

"Hands up who can tell me...?" These words have been part of school life for decades. Generations of teachers have expected pupils to stick their arms in the air as they question them in class. But it is a ritual that one head has decided does more harm than good.

At Jo Richardson school in Dagenham, east London, there is a "no hands up"

policy reinforced with notices displayed in every classroom.

Andy Buck, the headteacher, says that the practice of putting hands up to answer questions had not benefited anyone.

Invariably the same few pupils would put their hands up every time forcing the teacher to direct questions at those whose hands remained firmly on their desks.

The pupils chosen were likely to feel victimised and ill-prepared to answer. Meanwhile the "hands up faithfuls" would start to lose interest.

Other pupils, often boys, tended to put their hands up, not knowing the answer, simply to gain attention while bright students never put their hands up for fear of being labelled as swots.

Teachers at Jo Richardson are expected to select the students they want to answer questions unilaterally.

It means they can target questions to stretch more able pupils and support those with special needs. It also allows them to build in thinking time between asking a question and seeking an answer, reducing the likelihood of guesswork.

"Students are also much more likely to listen to what another student says in response to a question if it is one they have been thinking about themselves," said Mr Buck.

"Add to this the fact that they don't know who the teacher will choose, there is already a much greater chance they will have thought about the question in the first place."

A pupil struggling to answer can be given a "phone a friend" option, which avoids humiliation by giving them control of the situation and encourages the whole class to concentrate in case they are picked.

Mr Buck experimented with the no hands up approach while teaching geography nine years ago and it is now part of a teaching framework across the school.

But there are exceptions. Mr Buck suggests asking pupils to put their hands up can be appropriate for a challenging question, when it is helpful for the teacher to know who might have the answer.

He also advocates asking pupils to vote with their hands to see who agrees with an answer that one of them has given. This allows the teacher to gain instant feedback on who has understood, and reinforces the importance of pupils listening to each other.

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk

Andy Buck outlines his approach to headship in a book called Making School Work to be published by Greenwich Exchange later this year

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