Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why "Hands Up" Sucks.

One of the big differences I've made in my teaching in just the past year is the way I ask questions of the class. Most of teachers' lives are spent asking and answering questions and there is a tried and true script that everyone remembers from their own school days. First, you teach something. Then you ask a question about it. One of the six kids who pay attention in your class sticks their hand up. You call on them. They answer. If they get it right you move on.

This is such a common way to run a class that it's not even questioned but when you think about it, "hands up to answer" makes no sense at all.

If I'm asking a question after teaching, something ideally I want to know if anyone in the class doesn't understand or misunderstands what I have been teaching. But there are no students in schools that want to put their hand up to show how little they understand. Students want me to think that they are smart. So they put their hand up when they know that they know the answer.

Occasionally I might get lucky and find that even the confident kid who thinks they understand misunderstands. But basically, if I run my classroom this way I'm going to spend the entire semester breezing past the 80% of students who do everything they can to stay off the radar and not reveal any ignorance.

So for the past year, since reading about Dylan Wiliam in the Sydney Morning Herald, I've been playing around with random questioning.

For each of my classes I have a deck of note cards with each student's name on them.  As I'm running a classroom discussion I shuffle the deck in my hand and random students are called on to answer. I ask a question, then force myself to wait and make all of them think about it, then I draw a card. This means that this year as I write reports (which I should be doing now) I'm not left with any students who I can't say anything about.  Everybody in my classes regularly makes some kind of contribution to what we're doing.  Every student is accountable.

Some kids find this uncomfortable. Boys who like to sit their heads on the desk and sleep find it pretty difficult to do in my classroom. And one girl, who is happy to take part in discussion when she knows the answer, objected strongly to me calling on her sometimes when she didn't know the answer. But it has slowly become the accepted way of doing things for my students.

The cards are fair, and they keep everyone on their toes.  Now that I'm using them I would never go back.

By the way, for regular readers I apologise for the leisurely gap between this post and the last one.  The reason should be obvious.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brendan. I cannot thank you enough for the piece hands up sucks.
    I have a three and a half and a bit year old ( she likes to add " and a bit") and will ask EVERY teacher I come into contact with what their policy is for answering questions in class. And show them this article.
    It is simple changes like this which will make the difference.
    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.
    Andrew b.