When does hands-up in class deserve the thumbs-down?

8th June 2007 at 01:00
Andy Buck is head of Jo Richardson community school in east London.

The recent report on primary classroom strategies contains the range of interesting observations and sensible recommendations one might expect, even if many of the ideas are common sense and are what good teachers have done for years. As usual, the media have picked up on any theme that makes a good story. That's their job.

This time round, the focus has been on the idea that teachers should consider directing questions to specific children rather than allowing them to put up their hands. Critics have suggested this policy will either result in classroom chaos or disaffected pupils, despite the fact that many teachers already use this approach.

So why is it sometimes a good idea to say "no hands up"? First, this rule usually increases the level of engagement in class. As pupils don't know who the teacher will choose, there is already a greater chance they will have engaged with a question in the first place. Many students in our school admit that while they don't always like the no-hands-up rule, it makes them more likely to think about what is being discussed because they might be chosen to answer.

Second, a class in which pupils raise their hands often places the teacher in the middle of a potentially complex situation. Imagine the scene when a teacher first meets a class. Discussion begins, questions are asked and hands go up. The teacher chooses who will answer. After a while, it becomes obvious that it is the same few pupils who put up their hands. But what about the rest of the class?

Usually, questions start to be directed at pupils who haven't yet raised their hands. Then it gets complicated. The children chosen sometimes think they are being picked on because they didn't put their hands up, and often feel unprepared to answer (they hadn't expected to be asked so hadn't really been listening). But they can't be seen to lose face in front of the class. The chances of an inappropriate or poorly considered response are greatly increased.

And what of the "hands up" faithfuls? They start to lose interest. Why put up your hand if the teacher only chooses those who don't? Soon, the teacher can lose some pupils' goodwill. Add to this the irritation of pupils (often boys) who put up their hands when they don't know the answer just to gain attention, or bright pupils who don't want to be labelled as "swots" and never raise their hands but secretly want to take part, and you have a complex set of social parameters that make things very difficult for the teacher.

Much better for the teacher to select students to answer. This makes for a more manageable process in terms of overall behaviour management as it puts the teacher in control of this part of the lesson. This has the advantage of enabling teachers to target questions accordingly, to push more able pupils and support the learning of those with special educational needs. It also means the teacher can build in a delay between question and response that allows for proper thinking time. Boys in particular are often keen to guess before thinking things through. So the quality of likely response suffers. Students are much more likely to listen to what a classmate says in response to a question if it is one they have been thinking about themselves.

But by stressing the disadvantages of "hands up", it should not be assumed that there aren't times when it has a useful place. It is particularly useful towards the end of a discussion when the teacher may be asking a challenging question and cannot be sure the pupil they are choosing will know the answer. It is helpful to know which pupils think they might have the answer. It is also helpful to ask a class the question "who agrees?" or "who disagrees?" with an answer. Using "hands up" to vote gives the teacher instant feedback on the class's understanding. It is Assessment for Learning in action.

Andy Buck is the author of Making School Work; a practical approach to secondary school leadership (Greenwich Exchange)

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