Last week, the NY Times ran an article about the introduction of electronic “clickers” in groups and classrooms, as a replacement for the traditional raising of hands. The article was actually more about how the usage of clickers can be useful in voting situations and the ways that it can enhance instruction through immediate, and public, opinion polling, but an interesting teacher-reader’s letter about why he loved hand-raising in his classroom was published a few days later. This teacher, Mark Vincenti, felt that the manner in which his students raised their hands–shyly, enthusiastically, dutifully, etc.– provided him with information about the student and their feeling about the question.
I regularly give writing workshops to elementary aged students and, in the beginning of these lessons, there is a brainstorming session where I write a lot of words down on the board to be used later. In the beginning, I followed the hand-raising protocol familiar to anyone who has ever been to school, but this was often so sluggish that it cut into our writing time and it was always the eager-to-answer kids whose hands consistently shot up to be called on. So, I began experimenting with what I call the No Hands Rule. Basically, I let kids “call out” their answers. Since one of the ubiquitous rules of the classroom is “no calling out,” when they hear me tell them this, they look at me like I am crazy. Then they smile.
I give them some guidelines before I say go. I tell them that, most importantly, because their objective is to be heard, they need to wait until someone isn’t talking rather than talking all at once. I tell them that they don’t need to speak louder than a regular talking level. I also tell them to listen to what others are saying in the event that another person has just said what they were going to say. You would think that they would jump immediately into this with eagerness but there is a weird period when we begin where I am waiting for their input and they sit there with the strangeness of trying to talk to a teacher without their hand in the air. The older they are, the more difficult it is and it’s a little bit funny at first. If they get too jumbled up and everyone talks all at once, I dial them down and we try again.
Most of the classes tell me that almost no one ever lets them do this and, when I ask them for feedback on particular lessons, they almost always cite this as one of the things they like about them. There is certainly a place for raised hands in the classroom, but I find that including instructional moments that allow for calling out are really beneficial in a few ways. Most obviously, they generate ideas fast and enthusiastically, and they are the kind of ideas that are great for brainstorming because they are the first, uncensored ones. They teach social contribution within a large group that is moderated by an adult so as to be fair and civilized (in contrast to, say, the cafeteria), they create a contagious energy for the material that you can see spreading out to all the students in a way that a silent hand-raising room does not, they eliminate the right-wrong spotlight through a more relaxed conversational style and, I believe, actually coax the shier students who normally do not raise their hands into putting their ideas out there.
Because children are nearly never allowed to do this, training a room full of 20-25 is the tricky part and it does take some trust and a little patience to get it right. Of course, not all teachers would agree with me that kids should ever be allowed to “call out.” Certainly none of my teachers did; I was constantly getting in trouble for talking without raising my hand. I’m not sure if using clickers is the same as allowing for periods of calling out answers, but in the Times article I referenced, one of the most interesting points made for using the clickers was that they allowed participants to feel as though what they said mattered.
The delighted shouts from middle-schoolers and seniors alike suggest that neither group is accustomed to having its opinions solicited. But with a clicker, “suddenly their voices are important,” said Professor James Katz, the director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers. “If people feel their opinions really count, they’ll be happy and likely to give more opinions.”
I’ve seen the shy kid get instantly un-shy and call out an answer during a No Hands Rule session so I know that it works, however, Mark Vincenti, the teacher who wrote the letter likes how hand-raising identifies the shy student so that he can address that child’s needs accordingly.
But what about the student who is too shy ever to raise a hand, you ask? Ah, I notice that; that, too, has meaning and in my classroom singles out the especially silent student for special care. But how would I have ever spotted that child if clickers, rather than raised hands, were the order of the day?
I might argue that hand-raising makes shy kids shier in the classroom and makes eager answerers more eager because it does put the individual in such a spotlight when they are called on. I would also note that sometimes the eager answerers don’t really follow the hand-raising protocol and often actually do call out at the same time their hand is in the air. And, even if they won’t admit it, teachers like right answers and might prefer to call on kids who won’t sit there and say “ummmmmmm….,” crack a joke or get it totally wrong.
I have always liked a lively classroom and I know this makes some teachers crazy. Out in the real world, you really should wait your turn to talk but thank goodness you don’t have to have your hand in the air to do it. I bet we could teach our kids a little bit about this before they get there.
TRY THIS WEEK: Call out your answer.