No hands classroom

We all know the difficulty in keeping some students engaged in a lesson or activity. There’s often one or two who sit on the edge and regularly ‘switch off’. My mission this year has been to try engaging ALL of the students, ALL of the time. A very lofty goal, I know.

One little technique which has certainly made a difference is having, as much as possible, a ‘No hands classroom’ philosophy. Intrigued?

As teachers, we are always answering hands, whether its in a whole class or small group situation. It’s like we’re addicted to the illusion of engagement that it creates. There are always students in the class who answer everything and, to be honest, we all notice when they are away. These students are always thinking, always contributing to the class and gaining a large amount of esteem in the process. This is not bad, for them, but has a debilitating effect on those around them.

The students either side of the ‘hyper engaged’ realise that ‘Martha’ will answer the question so why should they even think for themselves. They have a waving hand hosted to the roof, the teacher wants to maintain the energy in the room by asking enthusiastic students and the cycle of disengagement is continued. What’s worse is that, for those switched off students, the disengagement becomes like a learned helplessness which creates a situation where research has shown that in any class there are 30% or more students who are simply ‘doing time’.

A ‘no hands’ classroom would strive to have every student thinking, discussing and sharing their ideas at all times. Here are some techniques to help those of us who are ‘hands’ addicted.

1. Simply enforcing the ‘no hands rule’.
When a teacher first tells a class that we won’t be having hands up today (or, even worse, ever) it can be very confusing for everyone. Students and teachers have had years of this behaviour ingrained. Teachers can remind students but the enforcement largely lies with us.

2. Have students sitting next to a ‘thinking buddy’.
When we want students to think for themselves about something it’s very motivating to have someone to share that thinking with. Ask a question, have them share with their buddy and then ask them to report back to the class.

3. Get good at sometimes asking kids who do and sometimes those who might not look engaged.
This sounds mean and can backfire. What happens when they’re not listening? It sometimes has an embarrassing effect and can draw kids in by the fear of being asked. It all depends on how we react. I try to be light hearted and ‘invite’ the student to join in. It usually works but the opposite happens when I’m negative and ‘scold’ the student.
nb – It can turn into a game as the already engaged students get good at ‘faking’ not listening and then trick you into asking them!

Like every teaching technique, you have to have a balance in your approach. I think there are times when asking hands up IS appropriate. The challenge for me this term is to engage more of the students, more of the time by having – no hands…

(1st image –


Formative Assessment for the digital learner.

For quite a while I’ve been wishing for a way to ‘marry’ the formative practice we have in our class with the digital environment we work in. At the moment the students often use a matrix that guides through a process of steps in an inquiry or presentation they are preparing.

These matrices , either written by me or co-constructed, are usually word processed and posted on the wall. The students put their name, face or group names on the level they are working at, whether it is at the novice, apprentice, practitioner or expert. This has been a great way for them to monitor their progress, justify why they are where they are and work out what they need to do to get better.

I’ve wanted, though, to be able to ‘digitalise’ this process so they can access the matrix from home, record their progress in their ‘e-folio’s and be able to regularly access it from where ever they are working (They are often working in different classrooms and learning spaces around the school).

Google to the Rescue!

Our school has rapidly turned into a flagship ‘Google’ enterprise. We’ve adopted Gmail and Google sites and we’re slowly building up the wide spread practice of staff using and sharing docs, sites and Blogger blogs.

This evening my eye was drawn to a link (on twitter… say no more) to a google presentation called,
‘Twenty uses for Google Docs in the classroom’.
Thanks to @Jedd (Jedd Bartlet) I was able to see the possibilities of the sharing tool for drawing students into collaborative projects.
The ideas are great! Everything from working on presentations together to adding data on spreadsheets and graphing the results to, what REALLY caught my imagination, creating collaborative ‘revision lists’ (idea #15).

The example shows the students names listed across the top of the spreadsheet and the tasks or criteria down the left. The key at the bottom indicates the students progress in each criteria and the cells were coloured as appropriate throughout the process by the students!

This is fantastic, I thought. Finally a way for the students to work in a collaborative way on a formative, digital, assessment matrix. But…how would we share this matrix with our learning community? We would want to post our progress on our e-folios? This is my goal for the term – to share our learning progress as well as our product.

Enter Google search! A simple question search (‘Can I embed a google doc / spreadsheet into a blogger blog?) led quickly to this blog post.
‘Google docs and spreadsheets in your blog.’
Here the author posts some easy steps to doing just that – publishing any Google doc as html code and embedding it into a Blogger blog post. What’s even more exciting is that the embedded version is not a static jpg image but a movable document with your arrow keys or mouse; great for large docs on a small post space. This is a quick version of the type of thing I want to try and an example of it embedded into a blog.

It shouldn’t surprise me that what I’ve imagined would be useful has already been created and shared. It’s also continued to confirm to me that our decision to run with Google has been the right one for our school.

Have I created the matrix for the class to run with? Not yet. Am I keen to try?… You betcha!

Engagement Ideas for Fractions

I’m a huge fan of using digital tools in the learning process but I’m equally passionate about children being outside, active and getting their hands on things.

I hated being told, ‘Don’t touch!’ when I was younger. I still do. It bugs me, then, when I hear myself saying it to students in the classroom. This week I’ve made an extra effort to get outside and let the children ‘loose’ with some P.E equipment to solve a fraction based problem.

This activity required the pairs of students to
arrange their ‘sheep’ (the cones) into three equal paddocks. They could move the ‘electric fences’ (skipping ropes) inside the farm and put the sheep where they thought they could go. It became a great way for the group to encounter fractions for the first time this without even knowing it.

The group then followed this with another ‘farm’ that needed 15 Lhamas (frisbees, and you can use your imagination) divided up amongst three paddocks. The thinking led us to discover 1 third, 2 thirds and then 3 thirds of 15. They were then able to draw their thinking in chalk on the pavement.

Another small group technique I’ve started is something I’ve used for writing groups. It’s amazing how motivated students are when they have a whiteboard pen in their hand!

Each student has a laminated white sheet to draw and show their thinking. I do, however, have to confess to using, “3.2.1 hands off!” to regain their attention but the increase in student focus has been amazing to see.

The last development to our maths programme has been the use of an online quiz from Proprofs Quiz School. This is an application that you can embed into a website or blog that records a students results, is incredibly easy to construct and enables embeded video and images.

The quiz tells you when you have answered correct or otherwise and you are given a certificate of achievement at the end. This week I had a relatively low achiever in maths email me his result because he scored 100%. I was able to show him how to email a jpeg version to his Grandad and his face literally shone.

It’s amazing me how much progress the entire class has made in a short time we have been learning about fractions. What I’m noticing, so far, is that nearly ALL of the students are achieving success but it does come at a cost.

The reading I’ve made into student engagement has suggested that there is a difference between engagement and compliance. Some research shows that compliance results in co-operation while engagement results in learning.

It’s great to see these activities drawing otherwise detached students into their maths.


Student Motivation Survey

This week I surveyed my class about how engaged and motivated they thought they were (my teacher inquiry this year is on student engagement within a maths context. The format I used was an online survey called Survey Monkey. It’s amazingly easy to set up, free and very interactive (exactly what we expect in our rather spoilt, Web 2.0 existence). The results were far from shocking, in fact, they were quite reassuring.

I asked the students a range of questions on topics such as how much they thought they were learning and what helped them stay focused and motivated. Here were some snapshot statements on the results.

– Nearly 80% think they are mostly or always motivated to learn in class.

– 67% think that computers mostly or always motivate them to learn and 73% think that the
computer has helped them learn.

– 84% find hands on activities help them stay motivated during maths small groups.

– The highest rated options to alter small group maths times were
– hands on activities,
– increased time,
– more web based tools / interactives.

The idea that hands on learning and digital environments increase student engagement are not new by any stretch. This survey has, then, validated and encouraged me to continue along the path our class is on.

There were some results, however, that are contrary to what research tells us. The class rated ‘Knowing the reason why we are learning something’ as the least likely to motivate and engage them. Maybe I haven’t promoted this aspect enough in class for them to experience the benefits? Perhaps, also, they don’t feel like they have had the permission in the past to ask or even think why.

So, how will this impact my teaching?

– More Hands ON activities?
– More Digital Tools
– More TIME