If only students would STOP raising their hands


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june 2009 if only students would stop raising their hands by joe bower we must constantly remind ourselves that the ultimate purpose of evaluation is to enable students to evaluate themselves ~art costa hollywood loves the traditional school story weve all seen the movie or the television show where the caring teacher struggles to reach underachieving sweat-hog students at first the teacher tries to deliver daily instruction while the students misbehavior shows us their contempt for all things learning through nothing short of an emotional roller coaster plot the teacher finally reaches students and in the end we measure those students successes by the rigidity in their posture and the height of their fingertips private educational companies have sprouted up all over north america advertising that your childs learning will improve one full grade level if you sign up today their television ads play like a before and after view of your child first is a child with an infinitely long frown struggling with the parent at the kitchen table as the nightly homework fight plays itself out but with a little corporate help your child could be that student at the end of the advertisement ­ you know the one who is beaming with pride his arm reaching for the sky while he waits with feigned patience for the teacher to call on him we all know that good learning is represented by the number of times a student can raise his hand respond with a correct answer and be praised by the teacher or is it if you were to walk through a school and peek into the classrooms you would find a plethora of consistencies for the most part students are in desks lined up in rows and raising their hands whether you are a six-year-old in kindergarten learning how to write your name or you are a seventeen-year-old in high school learning the difference between capitalism and communism you are very likely expected to raise your hand if you want an opportunity to contribute to the discussion a principal who walks the hallways of her school to find classroom after classroom full of students throwing their digits toward the ceiling might be pleased to see such well organized and seemingly productive conversations taking place.


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raising your hand has become such a no-brainer for teachers that i would encourage educators to rethink this traditional practice after all routinely questioning ones practices and pedagogy is an admirable professional quality and it could be said to be even more important to question the things we have begun to take for granted the things we mindlessly accept as obvious truths when evaluating our practices typically the first question to ask is why are we doing this too often educators simply rethink the how ­ how can we do this better but the how is simply too narrow of a focus it assumes we should be doing the this in the first place rather than asking how can i get my students to raise their hands we should be asking why do i want my students to raise their hands what is the purpose of such an expectation most teachers would agree that students are expected to raise their hand so that the teacher may facilitate class discussions in a more effective and efficient orderly manner this seems like a very non-controversial idea teachers may disagree on a long range of education topics but it should be safe to assume that all would agree on this shouldnt it lets evaluate some of the reasons why we have students raise their hands maintain an orderly discussion where the 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 maintaining a well planned and time sensitive lesson plan maintain a quiet classroom some of these are admirable goals while some may require further inspection for example the need for a quiet classroom may be more for the teachers own selfish needs than for the students learning but thats another discussion the purpose here is to evaluate whether having students raise their hands actually achieves these objectives in the way we would want them to why is it that so many students continue to have a hard time adopting proper discussion skills despite being inundated with the hands rule for as long as 12 years why do some students still not wait their turn to talk why do some continue to dominate the conversation while giving others little to no opportunity to have their say or others remain silent and rarely ever speak up the good news is that the answers to these questions are not as nebulous as we might fear the bad news is that it may be more our fault than we might like to admit the blame may lie in that no-brainer raise-your-hand strategy that we so mindlessly accepted as an obvious truth most teachers teach the way they were taught it was good enough or bad enough for me so its good enough or bad enough for my students i re-evaluated my use of the raise-your-hand strategy a few years ago when i realized that i was the one benefiting the most from its implementation as the teacher i


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was the one making all the decisions i was doing all the thinking i was deciding when a student was sharing too much or too little i decided who got to talk i decided if a student had said enough i decided to allow the quiet student to speak instead of calling on another who had already shared multiple times that class i decided i think you get the point students will not learn to make good decisions vicariously through my decision making skills they have to have the opportunity to make these decisions for themselves to further my point i will share a situation that occurred in my classroom on the first day i introduced my stop-raising-your-hand strategy after i introduced the idea to my students of not raising their hands during a discussion we embarked on what i knew would be a difficult discussion i knew it wouldnt be the topic that would cause trouble but rather it would be that the students couldnt depend on me to run the discussion i wasnt going to be the thinker and do-er for them they were going to have to figure out a way to have a discussion without running to me for a solution the discussion began about the difference between the concepts of standard of living and quality of life but trouble began immediately when johnny and sally both started to share a thought out loud with the class they both kept talking one getting louder than the other as they continued to stare me down in a desperate race for my attention when they were done no one in the class understood anything either one of them said it was chaotic an observer might be tempted to judge this little experiment of mine as a failure and that i should just go back to what we know ­ even some of the kids facial expressions were portraying this message rather than just go back to raising hands i asked myself what did i just learn from this it would be easy to assume that the lesson here was that we need hands to avoid chaos however i came to realize that there was a far more accurate and pressing lesson to be learned johnny and sally didnt stop once they realized they were both speaking over one another if they realized it at all i also realized that they never looked at each other recognizing the other as a potential speaker or listener instead they plowed on with what they wanted to say competing for my attention what should sally and johnny have done what would have been the respectful thing for them to do in the adult world we dont have a discussion moderator waiting to pounce on two individuals who happen to speak up at the same time rather those individuals would be responsible for themselves they would stop look at each other and one of them would ask the other to proceed i think we could assume that none of this entered johnny or sallys minds and that is the problem students have been trained so well to play the raise-your-hand game that they know it is the teachers responsibility to facilitate the conversation students simply sit at their desks in a waiting pattern patiently or impatiently waiting for the teacher to give the okay this isnt good enough if we really want to teach children how to conduct a proper discussion we need to teach them to think for themselves and to think about other people.


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back to my story once johnny and sally stopped i asked them who should go first johnny said in a half serious half joking manner ladies first i wasnt entirely pleased with this response i mean do we really want the default to be that the girls always get to go first i hope we would all see this as no more proper than to always let the tall kids go first so i asked for more solutions thats when ahmad said sally shared a lot during math class but johnny didnt say anything sally agreed that she had indeed shared a lot during math and quickly looked to johnny and told him to go ahead johnny shared and the conversation went around the room it was more than a little awkward as the students tried to facilitate a full class discussion on their own for perhaps the first time i continued to guide the conversation by asking questions and it was becoming clear to everyone except martin that martin was taking over the conversation he was taking great personal pride in being able to respond to my questions and he didnt even have to wait for the teacher to say he could talk the other students were becoming frustrated and annoyed with martins hogging of the discussion but they werent just frustrated with martin they were becoming frustrated with me because i wasnt doing anything about it i asked martin if he knew that others wanted to share he admitted that he knew that molly wanted to say something so i asked martin if molly should get to share i was more than a little shocked to hear martin say no i was fascinated by this response martin explained well i think molly has the same answer as me and i dont want her to say it before me i asked him what matters more ­ that the answer is shared regardless of who says it or that you say it martin without a moment of hesitation replied that i say it another boy in the back then blurted dont be so selfish martin turned red in the face and sniped back im not being selfish despite this reaction i could see that he had registered a disturbing thought ­ maybe he was being selfish again an observer might dub this whole thing a failure that this set back only reinforced the need for hands but i wasnt convinced i was still excited about the affect ahmads comment had on sally and i was determined to gain similar results with martin this exchange with martin evoked a couple thoughts firstly because the hands rule was removed martin just assumed he had a blank cheque and he had every intention of cashing it in he was bound and determined to get his share and more of the discussion after all it appeared there was nothing to stop him and thats the problem ­ according to martin if the teacher wasnt going to audit his participation he assumed that left no one to curb his desire to dominate the discussion there should have been someone and that someone should have been martin with the raise-your-hand rule he never had to think about his level of participation all he had to do was raise his hand and wait he never had to think about what a fair level of participation might look like or why it might matter in the first place the teacher did all that for him.


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secondly martin has come to see class discussions as a competition for the teachers attention after all it is the teacher who is doling out the grades the assessments and the verbal praise why wouldnt he do everything in his power to attain those goodies class discussions have become a fishing expedition for the right answers the smart kids pillage their way to the correct answers while the dumb kids run and hide living in fear that they might have to say something martin needs to say it first so that he can win this second point is not limited to the raise-your-hand rule its the atmosphere that is created by the teacher discussions should act more like a brain-storming session where students can construct their ideas by sharing and listening with others and then reconstruct their ideas because they are sharing and listening with others i think the essence of this point can be summarized best by harry s truman who said it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit by having class discussions teachers would most likely agree that we would hope that students are learning the answers to these questions how do i know when to stop listening and start talking how do i know when to stop talking and start listening how do i know when it is my turn to talk how do i balance my talking with my listening how do i know when a discussion should start how do i know when a discussion should end with the raise-your-hand rule who is asking these questions who is left to answer them who is afforded the opportunity to act on these questions sadly often the only person who really thinks about these questions is the teacher not often enough are the students encouraged to seriously ask these questions nor are they given the chance to construct and reconstruct their answers but there is hope if we provide students with an opportunity to answer these questions they will hone their discussion skills this doesnt mean teachers take on a completely hands-off strategy kids still need support they still need someone to guide them to the answers to these questions and the best way to guide children is to provide them the freedom to make mistakes so go try it try and remove the raise-your-hands rule it will be messy but give it a chance and you wont be disappointed.



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