S3 E6 - 5 Things to do Instead of Asking for Hands Up

Podcasts - Don't Ask for Hands Up


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Hello. Hello, it's Jocelyn here with another episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast coming to you from the gorgeous Padaway, Burnie in Tasmania. I hope that wherever you are and whatever you are doing, life is good, and your confidence in building a structured approach to literacy is growing a little each day. You see, this teaching caper is not about doing one magical thing on one magical day and looking up to see that every problem has been solved. It's about taking small steps to move ever closer to the goal of every single student becoming proficient readers and writers in the primary school years. We believe that every child has the right to learn to read and write with evidence-informed practice, and every teacher and leader has the right to receive support to make that happen. 

On the last episode of the podcast, I discussed the fact that having the good stuff is not enough to guarantee success in instruction by itself. So, on today's episode, I'd like to speak with you about how you can get bang for your buck in the good stuff in the classrooms. That is through an element of explicit instruction that we have all seen in action but that so many of us have yet to embrace, not asking for students to put their hand up in response to a question. The words "Hands up if..." are such an ingrained part of teaching practice that it feels odd not to use them. But if we can do some things instead of asking students to volunteer responses, we are going to get a whole lot more engagement in our classrooms. That is naturally going to lead to better learning outcomes for all. 

Hands up if...
Let's explore this practice a bit or, rather, alternatives to this practice. We've all been in the classroom and faced the issue of the same few kids constantly putting their hands up to ask questions or to answer them. Even if we want to hear from other students, we're confronted with these eager little faces bursting at the seams to share what they know or think, and even if we don't want to call on them, we feel bad if we don't. So we reluctantly call on these same few students all the time, knowing that we've missed an opportunity to hear from a broader range of kids. 

In thinking about alternatives to asking for hands up, I think that it's useful to think about it from this perspective. It's not about saying, "This practice is bad, so stop doing it." It's about increasing the ways that we elicit student responses and thinking about how each one might be used to best effect. Teachers talk too much in the classroom, and students spend WAY too long sitting and supposedly listening to what we say. Think about how long students in your class spend being passive between opportunities to do things, think things, and say things. It's not just about having a variety of ways students respond but also about increasing the number of responses and, more importantly, the number of correct responses that the students are giving. So let me say that again. We need to have a wider variety of ways that students respond. We need to make sure that there are more opportunities to respond, and we need to make sure that those responses are correct. 

What Do the Experts Say? Part 1.
I'd like to read from Anita Archer and Charles Hughes's book, Explicit Instruction.

Despite the importance of opportunities to respond, they should not be used to dress up poorly designed or inadequately prepared lessons. As discussed in Chapter One, high success rates are correlated with increased learning, and low success rates are correlated with decreased learning. The goal is not to increase the number of responses but the number of successful responses. During initial instruction, students should respond with at least 80 percent accuracy. During drill or independent work, a 90 percent or higher accuracy rate is desired. If students experience continued failure, motivation quickly dissipates. Also, when teachers request responses without providing the information that will lead to accurate answers, students engage in higher rates of undesirable behaviour.

We can see from this that not asking students to put their hands up is part of quality, explicit instruction, but it's not the whole box and dice. Adding pop sticks to a poorly designed lesson is not going to improve outcomes on its own. We have to prepare students to have the answers in the first place, and that's the topic for another episode, which I'm absolutely going to write. 

No. 1 - Non-Volunteers
Okay. So, we can see that having a variety of ways for students to respond is important, but what might those ways be? In their book Explicit Direct Instruction, Hollingsworth and Ybarra share that having students put their hands up leads to a statistical sampling error for the teacher. The same students always put their hands up, and we then form a view of what the whole class thinks or notes based on the responses of these students. It makes sense to have a randomisation of the responses. In this book, the authors present the idea of calling on non-volunteers or random students to check for understanding in the classroom. They do this through the use of pop sticks to randomly call on students. Some people are uncomfortable with this practice, fearing that it will cause or exacerbate anxiety, and I don't think that that has to be the case. You know your students, and you know who needs to be supported a little more than others. If you hear a student who is anxious, say something great, or if you want to call on them, just ask them quietly before you do so. Sure, that means it's not random, but it does ensure the highest chance of them participating fully with confidence. When I do this in the classroom, I ask, "Is it okay if, when I go back to the front, I call on you to share your answer because I thought it was really good?" and if the student says, "No." then I respect that. But if the student says, "Yes." well, that's an open door for me to invite them through. But when I get back to the front, if they're looking at me shaking their head because they've had an attack of anxiety and they've changed their mind, then I need to work with that as well. So, it's about being responsive to students. 

The other thing people worry about is if a student gives an incorrect response or they simply don't know, the worry is that they're going to be embarrassed, and this is where classroom culture comes in. So one of the things that you can do is say, "I'm coming back to you." and that's outlined in the book. Then, when you have elicited a couple of correct responses from other students, you go back to the first student and give them a chance to provide the correct answer. I like to give students the opportunity to say, "Come back to me." if they aren't sure of an answer. It removes opting out as an option but also gives the student some agency in responding, and of course, if they say come back to me, well, we have to remember and go back to them. I tend not to use pop sticks during fast-paced lessons because I want the flow of instruction to stay strong. Or if I do use them, I select three sticks right at the start of the lesson and have them in my hand ready to go. That does put the students on notice about what's going to happen, and they'd better pay attention. It means that it's super quick when I do want to call on them because calling on one person, putting their stick back, pulling out another stick and repeating can really stop or slow the flow of a lesson, but having them ready to go makes the whole thing much faster.

My issue with calling on non-volunteers in this way, though, is that I'm still only hearing from three kids, and I want to hear from all of them and make sure that everyone has something to do, say, and think regularly. So, I think that using a variety of methods of eliciting responses, as suggested by Archer and Hughes, is great. After all, low-variance instruction is not no-variance instruction; being able to change things up, keep students engaged and allow us to tailor the response that best fits the circumstance. 

No. 2 - Group Response
The next type of response I'd like to talk about is a group response. Now, as I mentioned, popsticks have a place, absolutely, but only enable us to check in with a few students. Group responses ensure that everyone is participating and engaged. Group responses can be oral. That is, you ask a question, and the whole group says something. This type of response is quick, with no prep, and you can use it right in the moment when you feel like you need it. The danger of this response is that some children will rush to be the first to answer, leading to the same outcome as putting their hands up. The same children are answering, or the same children are first all the time. To combat this, I use a signal that students need to wait for before they answer. When I'm modelling in the classroom, I like the click of fingers. It's quick, and everyone knows what's going on. I've also seen a teacher who had closed hands and then presented open palms with her hands facing as the signal for students to respond. You may well have your own nonverbal signal that you already use in the classroom, and I'm sure it's great. The beauty of a controlled response is that we are preventing students rushing to call out, but we are also managing wait time. Some of our students who need additional support don't need a separate opportunity to answer. They simply need two more seconds to process what you have asked, and then they will be able to join in. Giving them that time is the difference between them being able to engage in the learning, or sitting passively in the classroom. This is also the case for our students with English as an additional language. Wait time is wonderful and is an overlooked factor in lesson engagement. This kind of group response is more effective when you are reinforcing something you've just taught. It's a way to provide controlled repetition and focus student attention. It's not that great for checking for understanding, though, as you can't filter through and check on individual student responses. If you want to see, is the group staying with me here? It's not a bad idea. 

No. 3 - Partner Response.
Another way to have every student responding orally is to have them talk with a partner. This allows more room for richer responses than 'wait for my signal' and allows for the exchange of ideas between children. This approach, as for the last one though, doesn't allow you to see or hear individual students, but you can then support your spotlight students or those who need extra help by going to them first when they're speaking with a partner. The 'talk with a partner' group response can then be combined with calling on random non-volunteers or a written response for even greater effect. So with what I'm sharing with you today, it's not just one thing at a time, you could combine them for different purposes. 

No. 4 - Group Individual Response.
One of the ways to elicit a group individual response, and yes, I know that sounds strange, is through something written. Hollingsworth and Yubarra discuss the use of whiteboards and having students show you the board after they have written an answer. This is a brilliant way to gauge who has really understood what you've taught. But I do find that in the flow of, or in trying to maintain the flow of a fast paced lesson, having the children show you the board all the time can really get in the way. So again, think about when do you really want or need the students to show you what they have on the board. Or could you provide the answer on the board, and then they look at it and tick it or fix it. This is where your teacher's spidey senses come in, and knowing why you're doing what you're doing helps you to choose the right thing. 

No. 5 - A Written Response.
There's also another type of written response that I want to talk about. A powerful way to evaluate student engagement and whether your lesson has hit the mark is with a three-minute written recap at the end of a lesson. This literally involves asking students to write silently for three minutes about what they've learned during instruction. Now, I think that many of us are quite good at saying, "Well, today in the lesson we have covered..." but that's us telling them. We're not finding out what they got out of the time you've spent with them, and the difference between this and the general check for understanding that you might use with a whiteboard is that this is written on paper. It could be in a book or in a slip of paper that's handed in. The handing in can have a name on it, or it can be anonymous. So that's up to you. You'll be surprised about what you learn from this practice.

Lessons Learned
Recently I was teaching a morphology lesson about the base ject in a classroom, and, at some point in the lesson, I talked about how words can change their class, that the same word can be both a noun and a verb, depending on what sentence it's in and guess what half the class wrote about in their recap? They wrote about how words can change their class. Now, it is true that they can do that, and it is true that it's something that children need to know. But the problem was, the point of the lesson was the base ject, not about word classes. That was brilliant feedback for me and a great model for the teachers about what not to do in that I got off track. It's okay to talk about things that are not the main point of the lesson, but I didn't bring them back. What I should have done was to say, "Hey everyone, we've just talked about the fact that words can change their class, but our lesson today is about the base ject, tell me what the base is that we're learning about today." and have the students say, "ject", talk with your partner really quickly, tell them what the base is we're learning about today, ject, I should have brought them back, and I didn't do that, and the results were there in front of me. 

Your Turn
So here's an exercise for you. Decide on the one thing you really want kids to get out of a lesson and write it on a piece of paper. Then teach the lesson and get the kids to do a recap at the end of the lesson and see what they say. Count up how many students had an answer that matched yours? Was the message or the learning you were hoping to share what the students actually received or experienced? You may be a little scared to do that, and it could feel a little humbling, but we have to be prepared to see the results when we ask these sorts of questions. 

No. 5 - Action Response.
 Finally, Archer and Hughes include action responses on their list. Action responses involve a gesture such as holding up a number of fingers or giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down to have students respond to a question. These brief opportunities keep students focused and paying attention to the things you need them to, and that's precisely why we care about all these different ways that students can respond.

A Word of Warning.
You can be teaching what you perceive to be the best lesson ever, but if students are not actively attending and engaging and thinking and doing, then no learning will occur. Just a word of warning, though, while many students will find this shift welcoming and engaging, there are some students who may not. They will likely include students who really struggle with confidence, either not enough confidence or a little too much confidence. Those students who struggle to have the confidence to participate might feel quite confronted by not being able to opt-out. When it comes to engaging in the lesson, they're probably used to coasting and underperforming, but those who are very used to being the ones to answer all the time may find it confronting not being in the limelight. I recently had a school report back that when bringing these structures into the classroom, there were some students who are using words like boring. "The lessons are boring now, I don't like it." They don't actually mean that it's boring. What they mean is that they found the transition out of the limelight difficult. Now, I'm not making a judgment about those children. It's just what they're used to. Students saying, "This is boring." shouldn't always be taken at face value, though. Boring can mean a lot of different things, and so we have to know our kids. Getting this sort of feedback is not a reason to retreat from the path forward. We do need to remember that classroom culture is important and that culture takes time to develop. Our knowledge of students and how to support them personally is the thing that will help us get over any pushback from students, whatever the reason happens to be. We can conduct lessons, but how much learning happens is questionable if we don't have every student involved and we aren't monitoring their learning. Lots of doing goes on in classrooms, but how much learning actually happens, and how do we know when it does? 

Let's Quickly Recap all 5 Alternatives.
To recap, the five things you can do instead of asking students to put their hands up are

1) Call on non volunteers using pop sticks or other ways for generating random responses.

2) Use a signal to elicit a group oral response.

3) Have students talk with a partner,

4) Use whiteboards for quick individual written responses, and have students write for three minutes to recap what they've learned in a lesson so that you can have a deeper opportunity for checking for understanding. Incidentally, this increases the amount of time students write in a day and helps the general comprehension of the content you've just taught.

5) Have students give a physical signal in response to a question. 

You can use different combinations of these techniques, depending on how much time you have and the focus of your lessons, for real bang for your buck. But if these things aren't really happening, don't try and do everything at once. Just choose one thing, and it's fantastic if you can have a team all choose one thing that they're going to work on for a couple of weeks and come back and report and then choose another one until you've been able to pretty much eliminate hands up, most of the time and replace it with the things we've been talking about today. 

So, your action is to choose one technique mentioned in this episode to begin using or to use more consistently because explicit teaching only works if you do it consistently and with high expectations.  Pop into the On The Structured Literacy Bus Facebook group and let me know how you go, but until then, bye.

Looking for lesson resources that help you bring explicit teaching to your classroom? Join us in the Resource Room.

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