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Hands Up

December 15, 2013

A few weeks ago there was a bit of an argument on Twitter about the “lolly stick method” of questioning, where students’ names are written on lolly sticks which are pulled at random from a jar in order to decide who should answer the question. I think Tom Bennett has already covered anything I might say about this here. However, I would like to talk about the lolly stick method’s more common sibling, “no hands up” questioning. In particular, I want to talk about the practice (which I have encountered directly) of having a “no hands up” policy in a school which is intended to apply in all lessons.

I consider this to be one of those ridiculous, wrong-headed reactions to a genuine problem. For this reason it is worth discussing that problem first. The starting point of every justification I have ever heard for “no hands up” is that if you ask a question and let students put their hands up then the same students are picked again and again, while others completely opt out. While this is true, and does describe an unacceptable situation, “no hands up” addresses the symptom rather than the cause. Why do teachers often ask questions and then just take answers immediately from one of the first few students to put their hands up? I would give two reasons, both of which reflect a deeper problem.

  1. Teachers find picking students with their hands up preferable to the situation where students just yell answers. While it would be hard to prove, this seems to be a common situation, and teachers frequently inherit classes where shouting out is seen as normal behaviour and a teacher’s promise to ignore or punish shouted answers is not taken seriously. Training students to put their hands up and wait until they are picked when answering a question can be a prolonged process, but is a definite improvement on letting the yellers have first say. Getting students to put their hands up before answering can represent a vast improvement in how a class responds to questions. While this situation may only happen where the deeper problem is that expectations are already low in a school, schools should be more concerned about those low expectations rather than condemning practices which, while not optimal, might still represent an attempt to improve classroom learning.
  2. Teachers have been encouraged to believe that a) questioning is always a good thing and b) learning is better where students “discover” knowledge for themselves or teach each other. While both of these ideas are deeply dubious dogma, they are widely accepted and as a result teachers have come to believe in replacing telling students with asking questions. Sometimes teachers drop hints and encourage students to guess. Because such practices are a lot slower than just telling students what they need to know, teachers often rush through questioning just wanting a quick answer rather than genuine thinking and this leads to picking the students who are quick to respond and likely to have the right answer. Again, the misguided beliefs about how to teach are the deeper problem that schools should be challenging, not just their manifestation.

For this reason I can see little positive reason for a “no hands up” policy. As well as dealing with the two problems described above, there are a host of ways teachers can improve questioning (using thinking time, picking students who don’t have their hands up) which do not require banning students from putting their hands up at all. At the very least it makes far more sense to allow teachers to make their own decisions about whether to ask for hands up or not than to assume it is always a bad thing.

Additionally, there are various techniques that I would recommend that involve students putting their hands up. Here are some of them.

1) Students put their hands up to signal they wish to ask questions of the teacher. I think this is a really good thing. It shows students are trying to learn; helps deals with misconception; enables teachers to gauge understanding; stops children who are stuck from having an excuse to do nothing, and is far better than the preferred option of many students which is to bellow “I don’t get it” across the classroom when they have any difficulty.

2) Using hands up to gauge how many students can answer a question. I consider this, not the process of getting the answers, to be the most fundamental purpose of getting students to put their hands up. You sometimes have to spell it out to students and say “I am not asking this because I don’t know the answer but to see how many of you do”. You can emphasise this by responding to how many hands are up rather than taking an answer immediately. For instance, you could switch to an easier question first or you can stop to ask questions to those who don’t have their hand up like “which part of the question are you stuck on?” or “what do you think the question is about?” or “are you really sure you don’t know what 2+2 is?”. You make a real effort to get as many hands up as possible, and then it will often be best to ask whichever student with their hand up is most likely to have got the answer wrong. All of this is useful as formative assessment and to see how well an explanation has been understood.

3) Test who is listening by asking as easy question. With classes who are in the habit of not listening this is simply a good way to wake them up. Ask a stupidly easy question. Identify the students who don’t put their hand up and politely try to help them. While you have to be careful that there are no students who genuinely don’t know the answer who might be embarrassed, the cool kids will often feel a bit awkward to discover that they have just given the entire class the impression they can’t spell “the” and be more attentive in future.

4) “Hands up if you think you don’t know the answer”. This speaks for itself. One of the problems with asking for hands up to answer is that those who can’t be bothered to listen or do anything behave in the same way as those who genuinely don’t know an answer, i.e. they do nothing. This is a good technique for ensuring that ignoring the teacher is no longer a safe option during questioning. It works best on harder questions as students might be embarrassed to put their hands up to indicate they don’t know the answer to an easy question.

5) “Right hands up if you think you know the answer; left hands up if you don’t”. A similar step to avoid students opting out. Every student has to respond and you can tell who isn’t listening by the fact they don’t put either hand up. You may find that to do this you need to put signs on the wall pointing out which way is right and which is left. Another variation is to ask a question with 2 possible answers (say, yes/no or higher/lower)  and asking students to answer by putting their right hands up for one answer and their left hands up for the other (perhaps both for “don’t know”).

All of these techniques strike me as having obvious uses in class. More obvious uses than keeping hands down and playing with lolly sticks. Of course there may be alternative methods to achieve the same things, although at times the distinction between “hands up” and the alternative becomes pointless; when I worked at a school with a “no hands up” policy I resorted to “thumbs up if you know the answer”. I am not arguing that there is never a time when a teacher may want to ask for no hands up, but a blanket policy of no hands up is just a way of reducing the number of tools available to the teacher which will always be as likely to limit good practice as bad.

13 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. No hands, no thumbs, no tongues, no legs, no other appendages, no pens or pencils up. That’s it sorted. A very sane post.


  3. Although I don’t have detailed empirical evidence to support this assertion, I believe there are probably 1,000,001 tactics when questioning pupils as part of the process and I have probably tried most of them.

    Different forms of questioning can actually produce noticable engagement.

    I think that most of the points made in this post are reasonable, most of the suggestions useful. I do however think that having an issue with people using lollysticks is a little on the anal side of pedantic and worrying about whether we allow hands up or not is going in the same direction.

    You may be correct in suggesting that weaknesses in some people’s questioning is a symptom of a much greater problem, but sometimes I think “a cigar is just a cigar”. I would attribute this to Freud but I don’t believe he said it and anyway I do not think it makes any difference, the message is clear.

    I have worked under a “no hands up” regime, and other than the initial resistance to being told what to do we just got on with it. As a whole staff we actually got together and agreed which approaches to use for consistency. Agreed methods included lolly sticks.

    No hands up did have real benefits although we were one down on our available repertoire (1,000,000 rather than 1,000,001). On balance the consistency of approaches across the school outweighed the consequences of the ban.

    Being told to put VAK on your lesson plans is a nuisance and can be a bit time consuming and results in me having lesson plans which are produced simply for the policy. This is an example of a policy that I actually find destructive.

    “No hands up?”

    Current UK estimates from the Office for National Statistics for female life expectancy at birth are 82.9 years and 79.1 years for men. Although some (not me) have slightly more time to enjoy teaching, I still feel that life really is too short to worry about either lollysticks or no hands up. I am however very happy to watch others bicker over either.


    • You appear to be (in that last paragraph) doing that thing where you are snarky about other people choosing to discuss something, while actually discussing it yourself. You need to understand that this makes you look silly.

      Beyond that, if you want to argue lolly sticks you need to address the points in Tom’s post, not simply assert. I think he makes a very good case. Certainly, there is no point arguing for the benefits of consistency if what you are appealing to is actually consistently less effective than what people could do if left to their own devices.


  4. As always, much sense; a school that feels the need to micro-manage classroom practice in this way has lost sight of the big picture. However, there is just a little element of this post that makes me uneasy. I think, buried in there somewhere is the suggestion that ‘no hands up’ (as a policy chosen by an individual teacher) is bad because it’s the sort of thing a constructivist/progressive/skills-based theorist would promote. I think at least some of the momentum behind the cognitivist/knowledge-based zeitgeist is going to be a great thing for teaching in this country, but be careful to separate babies from bath-water. There is a good argument for picking pupils from the whole class rather than a sub-set with enthusiastic arms, even if at other times hands are raised, votes are cast, questions are flagged up etc. It’s perfectly possible to have ‘no hands up’ for normal questioning without precluding any of the suggestions about when you do want hands up, and although there are teachers with great questioning technique who always have hands up, my experience is that working with a ‘no hands up’ policy, at least some of the time, improves the questioning technique of many teachers who haven’t already mastered this important teaching skill.


    • I think the problem here is precisely with “normal questioning”. “Normal questioning” may well involve bad practice, and it may even be the sort of bad practice that “no hands up” will obstruct. But we should be getting to the bottom of why bad practice is “normal”, not just throwing in obstructions and hope they obstruct bad practice more than good. But then, this is the case I have already made, and you aren’t really giving me much reason to reconsider my position.


  5. […] Hands Up. […]


  6. I can’t understand why a school would ban any useful teaching technique – of which asking for hands up is clearly one. It’s cruel to take away a child’s chance of answering (or even just indicating that they could answer) a question that isn’t the one their teacher happens to feel is of the appropriate difficulty. Students need the opportunity to surprise is with strokes of genius – unlikely when they’re banned from indicating their Eureka.

    That said I love my lollipop sticks. They come out about once a week, bring a great air of theatre, and lead to more energised questioning. I pretty much only use them for recall questions, and only when I want to get through something quickly as a check for understanding. I think it’s fun, they think it’s fun, and it helps us use time that little bit more productively.


  7. I like to ask kids to smile at me if they know the answer. That usually freaks them out. I sometimes tell kids in advance that I will be asking them to summarise to the rest of the class the point I am about to make next. Never resorted to lolly sticks but am bored up with the put your hand up if you can guess what I want you say next style of questions


  8. […] Old Andrew on alternative ways to use hands-up – here. […]


  9. Everything you mention on here is a slightly edited version of a “no hands” technique
    Its all about inclusion.



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