Engagement for all wins the day, hands down

8th October 2010 at 01:00

"Hands up if you know the answer" is standard routine in most school classrooms. However, it can cause problems: the bright ones eager to be picked and the less confident scared they might make a fool of themselves.

If the teacher has created the right ethos, nobody should be afraid of looking foolish. A good teacher will use any answer to build on, and to get back on the right track. But just being in the spotlight for a moment or two can be torture for the shy ones and they would rather not risk raising their hands.

Then there are the teachers who ignore the confident hand thrust in the air, and pounce on the individual in the corner who has tuned out and who hasn't a clue what the question is, never mind the answer.

I was always one of the keen ones with my hand in the air in the English class and was never chosen because, presumably, I was a smartypants. In history, however, I was one of the thick ones because I had never read over the homework. Alas, we had the same teacher for both subjects. While she ignored my raised hand in English, I was always her first choice to answer questions in history, even though my hands were glued to my side. And I always got the answers wrong.

So, I devised a cunning plan. In English, I didn't raise my hand even though I knew the answer. In history, I thrust my hand eagerly into the air, even though I hadn't a clue what the answer was - and I was always studiously ignored. Result: we all lived happily ever after.

"Hands up" is something that is discouraged in most FE colleges, because it smacks too much of the classroom. The trouble is that just barging in with a comment or answer is discouraged too, so the students have to find a way of indicating they would like to contribute by more subtle methods: raising an eyebrow, raising a tentative finger, or looking as if they are going to explode.

I accept that banning "hands up" means you are relying on much more subtle ways of running a teaching session and it can create problems of its own. But, according to Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, banning "hands up" is a very good idea.

His research addressed the problem that bright children will be keen to contribute, while those who are less confident will hang back and disengage from lessons. Instead of "hands up", children in his experiment were all asked to write down the answer on a piece of card. If it was a yesno answer, they were all asked to give a thumbs upthumbs down.

It is certainly a way of ensuring that everyone stays engaged, and it would avoid the less ebullient members of the class from fading into the background. It will be interesting to see how this works in practice.

Whatever the method, whether "hands up" or "hands down", what is important is that learners feel secure and confident enough to engage in discussion, and understand that getting the answer wrong isn't a disaster but just offers a different way of moving along the learning curve.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer.

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