Raised Hands

Last week I was conducting a staff wide (K-12) professional development day on peer coaching. I had asked the principal to find a teacher who would volunteer to have his class taped so that I could model a preconference/observation/post conference coaching sequence.

In the preconference the teacher requested that the observation be based on his ability to engage the students and shared that he was open to any ideas as to how he could gain an increase in engagement.


As we watched the video together with the entire school staff, I noted several students who appeared “less than emotionally engaged.” When the post conference began the teacher quickly stated that “he saw many students who were not raising their hands and therefore sidelined, in the activity. (This was the first time the teacher had seen his instruction on video.)


The teacher said, “I need another strategy than raised hands”.



I remembered reading about Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education who reports that students who raise their hands listen in class, engage with the topic and so achieve more highly. The others often let their attention drift. “They’re foregoing the opportunity to get smarter,” says Wiliam.


“When teachers ask questions, it’s the same few pupils who put up their hands. The others can slip below the teacher’s radar, and therefore tune out.”


So instead of a show of hands, the teacher would ask pupils at random to answer any questions. “Those who didn’t usually raise their hands were shocked that they had to pay attention. Those used to volunteering an answer were nonplussed by their removal from the spotlight.”


Teachers found they had to plan their lessons in more detail, formulating questions to draw out pupils who’d fallen out of the habit of responding in class.


See Dylan William clips from a BBC documentary on this issue.


While observing in middle school classrooms this week I mentioned to several teachers that their raised hand strategy was really giving students the option of whether or not to participate in listening and thinking during the lesson. I also noted that when teachers called on students who hadn’t raised hands, those with raised hands looked disappointed. (Why ask me to offer to participate and then call on folks who didn’t volunteer?) Another realization was that the teacher can’t tell the difference between students who are answering and students who are asking a question. I’m thinking that this causes many learner questions to go unheard.


Joe Bower, in an article If Only Students Would Stop Raising Hands, shares his discoveries and experiences with changing the hand raising strategy in his classroom. When asking himself,”Why do we have students raise hands?”, Bower identified these reasons:


*Maintain an orderly discussion where students know whose turn it is to talk.


*Avoid blurting and interruptions


*Ensure that all participate…and then balance that participation


* Allow the teacher to use discretion when selecting who gets to speak


*Maintain a well planned and time sensitive lesson


*Maintain a quite classroom.


Bower determined from his list that he was the one benefitting the most from the raised hands strategy and that as long as he continued his students would not learn discussion skills. He states that moving away from raised hands is messy as students need to make mistakes with discussion strategies to learn them. His finding— it’s worth the effort.


With many instructional coaches and principals focusing teachers on students’ engagement, the work of Wiliam and Bower provide a great topic for a staff discussion. Facilitate it with no raised hands.

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