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…

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