The Barker Institute is already finding itself at the coalface of current educational thinking. One such theory that has reared its head in the media during the last week addresses the age-old teaching strategy of asking students to put their hand up in class, particularly when answering a question. One such article was published in The Age on 5 June, and another was broadcast on ABC Radio also on 5 June. Perhaps you woke up to Radio 702 on 11 June at 5.00am to a lively discussion, also on the topic. Everyone obviously has their own thoughts, based on their own experience, on the subject.

Earlier this year, Greg Longney, Head of History and Commercial Studies at Barker College, presented on this very topic as part of the Barker Institute’s ongoing professional development seminars. Greg challenged the audience to question the effectiveness of asking students to raise their hand to answer a question. The current thinking is that this approach is more associated with the traditional transmission-style of education – a model that is fast being replaced by one-to-one teaching strategies. Greg argues that asking students to raise their hands to answer a question favours the student who is already confident in their grasp of concepts, while leaving less-confident students behind. Similarly, the less-confident student might be perfectly able to contribute, but do not feel they have much of an opportunity.

This theory, like most educational theories has its proponents and detractors. The audience learned that historical adherents to the theory are the likes of Dylan Williams who has researched this theory in the context of its relevance in relation to formative assessment; David Perkins who talks about ‘Dwell Time’ and Ron Richardt who talks about the average time between teacher question and student response being less than one second. The latter two researchers are from Harvard and work on the Teaching for Understanding framework which has obvious relevance to our work at Barker.

It is important that this type of theory is constantly revisited as it should never be the case in education that because something is always thought to have ‘worked’ that it has, in actual fact, worked or should continue to be implemented. The issue is a difficult one from the perspective of teacher and student alike for many reasons. An automatic ‘hands up’ situation does not allow for a considered and thoughtful response which many students may have the capacity to contribute, but not the opportunity. An automatic ‘hands up’ situation tends to favour certain students who have the ability to think on the spur of the moment and access the correct information from their store of knowledge. Other students may have that store of knowledge, but may be slower to access it and thus not appear to be active contributors in class time. Students quickly work out who the Hermoine Graingers of their class are, and over time patterns become set which disadvantage those students who are slower to access their store of knowledge or who may be uncertain and lacking in confidence.

During question time a colleague suggested that ‘contributions’ were a useful tool in the classroom. Contributions could indeed be a safe way for students less capable or lacking in confidence to feel a part of the classroom interaction without any value judgment being made about their ability or lack thereof in relation to their response. With the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ being subtracted from the equation, there is less anxiety and consequent fear of failure involved for these students – thus making classroom discussion time more affirming.

Another tool discussed involved Paddlepop sticks – whereby random names are selected in order to answer questions during class.   This allows opportunity to be fair and equitable among students, and can also ensure that all students are ‘on their game’ so to speak in case their name is selected. This does, however, also cause anxiety among students who are concerned about their name being selected because they are awkward about answering among their peers.

There is no perfect answer. Like most educational theories, ‘No Hands Up’ has its place in the classroom, in tandem with other effective teaching practices and the use of emotional intelligence on the part of the teacher. Greg Longney gave us much food for thought and the Barker Institute is very grateful for his contribution.