Hands Up! When it’s helpful and when it’s not.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a keen advocate for cold calling – I’ve written a lot about it:

Cold Call Variations

In a previous post, Cold Calling: The #1 strategy for inclusive classrooms, I’ve outlined the essence of the Cold Calling technique and why it is so powerful. It’s […]

To many teachers, the short-hand of ‘no hands up’ equates to cold calling, although I’m at pains to explain that there’s a lot more to it than that. You need to make everyone think – so the no hands up aspect is only the beginning. But still, yes, it does mean no hands up is a part of it. In a class where the teacher generally takes answers from volunteers with hands up, some students dominate and others hang back. Nearly always, in an unstructured class exchange, a few students do most of the shared thinking, talking and practising. It’s not a good way to run a room if you want everyone thinking.

But.. does that then mean that no hands up should be an absolute rule? No it doesn’t. Aside from the obvious general point that there are no absolute rules in teaching, there are some very important uses of hands up; it’s helpful to have good routines around each one so that you are inviting hands up in a deliberate way for a specific purpose, not simply allowing it to become the casually lazy default and thus allowing some students to dominate and others to become passive.

1. Hands up to confirm

The purpose here is to give you an indication of the extent of the class response to a very specific question. You either want to know exactly who can respond or just get a general sense of the number. The command is simply ‘hands up if….’ or ‘raise our hand if….’:

  • You have completed the task.
  • You have seen a sunset on the horizon
  • You have read Lord of the Flies
  • You have been to Paris
  • You got 7 or 8 out of 10 on the quiz.

This is obvious enough but it’s one very common use of hands up with a clear purpose that does not interfere with the default questioning modes of cold calling/whiteboards/ think pair share. You get an overview of the level of response without stopping anyone from thinking or allowing anyone to dominate.

2. Hands up for ideas

This is invaluable. To illustrate the use, I’ll give a specific example where this was done beautifully. A Year 7 class were discussing the effect of the setting of a story on the narrative – specifically an enchanted forest. Students had to think of three or more features of the forest that created an effect – e.g. the dense trees, the darkness, the noises…. They were engaged in exemplary Think, Pair, Share, each pair sharing their ideas. Then the teacher cold called, asking 3 or 4 students to share their three ideas or adding to what had been said before. Some ideas were stronger than others and some evaluative responses were provided by the teacher.

But, even here, although she had successfully made everyone think and engage, she was aware that her sample of students had not allowed all ideas to surface. So, the final step was: ‘Does anyone have any other ideas we haven’t heard yet?’ A girl, Ruby, raised a hand and gave an excellent set of ideas, expressed in a more articulate fashion than any preceding respondent.

This seemed like superb practice to me. If Ruby had been allowed to call out or if it was ‘can anyone think….?’ from the start, Ruby would have led the discussion. Her answer would have intimidated a good few students. The weaker students wouldn’t have had time to think or rehearse. But, in asking the hands up, ‘does anyone…’ question at the end, bring up the rear, so to speak.. it worked perfectly as a consolidatory, final wrap-up, adding depth to a process that had involved everyone. (As an aside, the class ideas were recorded on a large whiteboard so they didn’t have remember them on the ether of transience… they were captured; static. Easy to compare and process).

So, as this example shows, hands up for ideas is powerful – students with great ideas can share them even if they weren’t originally selected. But they do it at the end, not at the start, filling gaps in the cold call responses, not preventing the thinking.

3. Hands up for questions

What do students do if they are stuck, unsure or have a genuine question about the topic? It would be ridiculous if a ‘no hands up’ culture, designed to allow and ensure everyone is thinking also prevented or inhibited anyone asking a question or letting you know that they were struggling. So, the simple protocol should be that raising a hand indicates that you are stuck, need help or have question about the topic.

This does take some management and reinforcement. If a student raises a hand, you ask as if they have a question or a problem.

  • ‘Amy, thanks for putting a hand up, what’s your question?’ It’s good to be positive about this. If students are asking questions out of interest, you’re onto a winner,
  • ‘Michael, thanks for raising your hand, what’s the problem you’re stuck on?’ It’s important to embrace this. If you’ve created a culture where Michael feels he can ask for help and not simply mask his problems, you’re doing something right.

The response you give assumes they have raised a hand for this purpose. If they seek to offer an answer – despite you saying that you want everyone thinking, and you will choose who responds – then you have to reinforce that expectation and not undermine it. It might sound very particular but really it’s not. Students can learn the habits: no hands up for answering… we think ready for cold calling but allow everyone to have their chance; hands up for asking questions.

4. Hands up to volunteer

Finally, sometimes you might feel that there’s a particularly challenging question or piece of drafting to be done and that you’d not really expect everyone in the class to offer answers without some prompts of scaffolds or modelling first. You could of course provide these yourself but often you might also feel that some students in the class could offer the prompts and scaffolds for others to learn from. Here, you can ask for volunteers.

In doing so, you should also be very clear in your mind that, when a student volunteers and offers and answer, this does not represent anyone else’s thinking and so you need to check their understanding. Essentially it works like the reverse of hands up for ideas – coming after the cold calling. You ask for a volunteer and then use their response as a stimulus or prompt for everyone else:

OK, let’s see if anyone can get us started. Hands up if…

  • You think you could answer the question on the board.
  • You can explain the process represented in the diagram
  • You are ready so suggest ways in which these two poems are similar and different.

Ruby volunteers and gives her answer. Then, you follow up with cold calling, pair share or whiteboards to check for understanding.

Thanks for that excellent starter Ruby.. ok, now everyone, let’s all think.. be ready to explain..

  • do we agree or disagree with Ruby and why?
  • what were the key points that Ruby included in her answer?
  • is there another method that Ruby could have used instead?
  • could you produce a similar sentence to the one that Ruby gave us?

The purpose, then, is the key to it. It’s never the default but, with clear expectations and routines, Hands Up definitely has a role and it can in fact reinforce other techniques provided that it is used deliberately, with clarity of purpose.

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