Should students put their hands up to answer questions in class, or does that cause more problems than it solves? A “No Hands Up” policy may not be the answer, as Adam Boxer explains.

I used to work in a school that started a “no hands up” questioning policy. There was an understandable concern that in many lessons the same few students were always being chosen to answer questions, and that a number of students might have fallen under their teachers’ collective radars. The policy didn’t work and was abandoned after a couple of weeks. As a very early career teacher I remember struggling with it myself, though at the time I couldn’t really articulate why.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight and a bit more classroom expertise, it’s pretty clear to me that this policy was well-intentioned, but fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons. These reasons can shed light on what effective CPD can look like and perhaps how policies aimed at improving pedagogy can be better designed.

First, a blanket policy like this fails to distinguish between different types of question. If I am asking students a free recall question about something I taught them last week, or the homework they were supposed to do, then a “no hands up” approach is the right route. Students should know the answer, so you should be able to pick any of them. However, if it is a question regarding which students might be a bit shakier – perhaps I am pushing their learning forward, or appealing to opinions about something just covered – then picking students who quite reasonably do not know the answer can feel a bit unfair. So, choosing students with their hands up in such a circumstance doesn’t ignore everyone else, it just acknowledges that not everybody is expected to have an answer to this question at this time.

Secondly, it came with very little training about how to implement it. It’s all very well saying “don’t let students put their hands up,” but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving pedagogy around questioning. What should I do if I pick a student and they don’t know the answer? What should I do if nobody knows the answer? What should I do if a student says to me before the lesson that they really don’t want to be picked? How should I talk to the class about the way I am questioning them? What scripts can I use to build confidence in students who aren’t used to speaking up in class? What phrases can I use in a case where a student gets an answer wrong and I want to thank them for being willing to give an opinion but also make it clear that it’s wrong? How do I respond to the student who is just desperate to answer every question and becomes more and more frustrated that they aren’t being picked? At what point should I not do questioning like this and should I use mini-whiteboards instead? This level of detail is rarely considered when discussing new strategies, but it leaves teachers entirely underprepared for classroom implementation.

Thirdly, there was limited analysis of the reason why we were making such a change. There are a number of plausible reasons for this kind of questioning, which all have direct ramifications for classroom use. For example:

  1. Reason: picking students with their hands up gives you unreliable information about class understanding as they are the ones most likely to know the answer.
    Ramification: ask one of your weaker students the question. If they get it right, you can make a decent assumption that most others know it too.
  2. Reason: picking students with their hands up does not ensure that every student feels like their voice is heard.
    Ramification: across the course of one or two lessons, make sure that every student answers at least one question.

These two ramifications might not be entirely mutually exclusive, but they are definitely in conflict. Do I want to make sure every student gets the chance to ask a question, or do I want to target questions towards students that will help me get a better picture of whole-class understanding as it builds over time? Without being explicit or clear about our reasons, we run head-first into such conflict.

For me, an additional – and perhaps the most important – reason to advocate questioning like this (which is called Cold Call in Teach Like a Champion) is to communicate to students that any one of them could be directly called upon at any point in the lesson, and to therefore increase the number of students who are thinking during your questioning. If students know that not putting their hand up means they will never get asked, they won’t bother thinking. But when they know they could be asked at any time they stay on their toes. Explaining this principle to staff means that they can start employing a number of other strategies in the service of the same goal (like bouncing back to a student who got an answer wrong earlier). This kind of intertwining of the “how” and the “why” of questioning is a much better route to improving pedagogy.

PRIORITIES

  • Make sure your strategy is not a blanket policy and has enough nuance to cope with a range of situations.
  • Make sure you have given teachers enough concrete guidance to be able to implement it in the messy reality of the classroom.
  • Make sure that you are crystal clear on the reasoning behind the strategy, that you communicate that reasoning and that is has guided and informed the first two points above.

Don’t just take some idea you saw floating around online or heard at a conference and impose it on staff.

Pull Quotes:

“picking students who quite reasonably do not know the answer can feel a bit unfair”

“Do I want to make sure every student gets the chance to ask a question, or do I want to target questions towards students that will help me get a better picture of whole-class understanding as it builds over time?”

Author

Adam is Head of Science at a North London Academy. He is a co-founder of Carousel Learning, a holistic online quizzing platform aimed at improving student retention in all school subjects.

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