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September 2009

If only students would STOP raising their Hands By Joe Bower "Students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.” ~Jerome Bruner

Hollywood loves the traditional school story. We’ve all seen the movie or the television show where the caring teacher struggles to reach their underachieving, sweathog students. At first, the teacher tries to deliver their 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 their students, and in the end, we measure those students’ successes by the rigidity in their posture and the height of their finger tips. Private educational companies have sprouted up all over North America, advertising that your child’s learning will improve one full grade level, if you sign up today! Their television ads play like a before and after view of you child. First is a child with an infinitely long frown, struggling with their parent at the kitchen table, as the nightly homework struggle plays itself out. But with a little corporate help, your child could be that child at the end of the advertisement – you know, the one who is beaming with pride, their arm reaching for the sky, while they wait in feigned patience for the teacher to call on them. Because we all know that good learning is represented by the number of times a student can raise their 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 their 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.

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 one’s 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, shouldn’t it? Let’s 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 there is a balance in 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 reasons are really good characteristics, while some may require further inspection. For example, the need for a quiet classroom may be more for the teacher’s own selfish needs than for the student’s learning, but that’s another discussion. The purpose here is to evaluate whether having students raise their hands actually achieves these objectives in the way we would want it 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 it’s 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 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 my students to the idea of not raising your hands during a discussion, we embarked on what I knew would be a difficult discussion. I knew it wouldn’t be the topic that would cause trouble, but rather it would be that the students couldn’t depend on me to run the discussion. I wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 Sally’s 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 teacher’s 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 isn’t 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.

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 wasn’t 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 Christians go first.) So I asked for more solutions. That’s when Ahmad said, “Sally shared a lot during math class, but Johnny didn’t 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 didn’t even have to wait for the teacher to say he could talk. The other students were becoming frustrated and annoyed with Martin’s hogging of the discussion. But they weren’t just frustrated with Martin, they were becoming frustrated with me, because I wasn’t 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 don’t 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, “Don’t be so selfish.” Martin turned red in the face and sniped back, “I’m 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 wasn’t convinced. I was still excited about the affect Ahmad’s 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 that’s the problem – according to Martin, if the teacher wasn’t 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.

Secondly, Martin has come to see class discussions as a competition for the teacher’s attention; after all, it is the teacher who is doling out the grades, the assessments and the verbal praise. Why wouldn’t 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; it’s 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 when he 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: • When is it appropriate to enter a conversation? • 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 doesn’t 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 won’t be disappointed.

No Hands