• Paul Wade

(No) Hands Up! Remote Learning & Participation

Good day to you all, home learners. Hopefully, as the weeks go past, you are settling into a rhythm. Here at Helpful Hints for Home Learning towers we have received quite a few queries related to watching your kids taking part in video lessons with their teacher and not getting the attention that you might expect.

The main question that parents are asking about this topic goes something along these lines:

“My child has lots of ideas and wants to say something many times every lesson, but they seem to only get picked by the teacher once or twice. Sometimes, they sit with their hand up for ages and then get picked to answer a question that they have not even put their hand up for. Why don’t teachers pick them?”


This means that, today, it is time to look at three things:

  • The reality of the real world classroom

  • The realities of classroom vs online teaching.

  • An introduction to the concept of ‘no hands up’ teaching and targeted questions.

Without further ado, here we go.


Many of your children will be in classes of 25-30 children (fewer if your child attends a private or international school) with one teacher and, sometimes, a teaching assistant. Assume that the ‘input’ part of the lesson (the bit that is focused on direct teaching) lasts about 20 minutes each time. Now assume that the teacher needs to spend about half of that time talking, in order to explain the learning. This leaves around ten minutes for children to talk. If the teacher relied on the traditional method of asking a question (5 minutes of those ten), there are then five minutes left for children to answer. Divide those five minutes by 30 and your child might just squeeze in ten seconds of question answering time per lesson. That’s just the maths. Even in a small class of, say, fifteen, it is still only about twenty seconds available to answer questions, assuming full teacher fairness.

So that’s the maths. Your child is possibly not getting all that much time to share their ideas, because there actually isn’t that much time available. If any of the questions require an explanation rather than a single word answer (which, as we will see later, is what we want to happen) then that may well equate to answering just one question per lesson.


Now throw in the added complication of video conference teaching.


Most teachers are used to being able to see all of their class at once. They can get a sense of who is engaged, who looks confused, who is shuffling about and, of course, who has their hand up and is desperate to answer a question. Even with the very best video conference software, it is only possible to see a part of any class. Once the teacher is using a presentation or chat tool, the portion falls further. They are also trying to manage their own desktop so that the students can see the right bit of the screen. Sometimes they are also looking after their own children at the same time. And all this while using software that, three weeks ago, they had probably not heard of.


All of the above might go some way to explaining your concern that your child is being left out or not getting the attention they need. BUT, there is another explanation. And this explanation has to do with a huge shift in the way many teachers have been teaching (pedagogy) over the past ten years or so. This explanation is ‘no hands up’.

When we went to school, if we wanted to answer a question, we put out hand up. Sometimes the teacher chose us, sometimes they didn’t. If we didn’t have a clue, we kept our hands down, tried to look as though we were paying attention and the teacher duly ignored us. Sometimes, we could keep our hands down for days at a time and never have to say anything at school outside of playtime. This was fine – except that it wasn’t (more of that later). There would also be times when we had a brilliant idea and wanted, desperately, to share it. We would sit there, hand stretched high, straining to be recognised and…nothing. The teacher just would not notice or, worse still, they would notice just at the exact moment you had totally forgotten – brilliant idea, gone for good.


And all of the above were problems. Children who wanted to answer questions and knew all the answers, did all of the talking. Children who didn’t, did none. The teacher only heard from the members of the class who were already engaged and neither got the others fully on board nor found out what was going on for the children who didn’t already know what the answers were. Teaching, in short, was not doing its job. And what it its job? – Find out what students have not already learned, find out why they have not learned it, establish what they need to learn next and work out how to ensure that they learn it. In only taking responses from those who already had the learning secure, the job was not being done. Research even indicated that children who stopped ‘putting their hands up’ could stop seeing themselves as learners from as young as seven years old.


A number of researchers and practitioners decided to try something new. They decided to do away with children putting their hands up. Instead, whenever they asked a question, they would ask pupils to gather in groups or pairs and talk about the answer. Usually for 10-20 seconds at a time, sometimes for longer. Suddenly, every time a teacher asked a question, every child was talking. Then, instead of getting children to put hands up to respond, teachers would either target a child from whom they wanted to hear (maybe someone reluctant, maybe someone who always has something interesting to say, maybe just the next person whose turn it was to speak) or they would randomly select the next respondent (lots of ways to do this, a pot full of names on lolly sticks being the most popular).


This ‘no hands up’ and ‘talking partners’ approach has become incredibly widespread in teaching. The vast majority of teachers who engage with research around their profession or who have started teaching within the last ten years, use no hands up as their key approach to asking questions.


Some parents and practitioners worry that this approach puts the keen children off, as they no longer get to share their ideas all the time. But actually the opposite happens. Because they get to tell someone every single answer that they have (in pairs) and also know that when they are asked to respond, the teacher will challenge them to give more complex and in depth answers, they are actually more keen than ever before. At the opposite end, the less keen children feel more confident to try to answer, as they have had a chance to talk it through first.

So what does this mean for online video conference teaching? Well, the talking partners are much harder to set up. Instead, teachers might ask everyone to share an idea via a chat function, or talk to someone else at home, or give everyone a bit more thinking time. With some of the more complex programmes, it is even possible to set up groups during lessons, to allow for discussion. Teachers will also make even more careful use of targeted questions. They know who will be able to give them in depth answers and who will prefer short, single word responses and will ask accordingly.


So what does this mean for your, super keen or super reluctant child? Well, it means that the teacher has spent months getting to know them, getting to know how to pitch questions to them and getting to know how to challenge and engage them best. It means that they might be ‘putting their hand up’ and not getting an immediate response, but they are actually used to this in the classroom setting – it just takes a bit of getting used to by video. It also means that the teacher knows what they are doing and that you can trust them to do what it right for your kid.


And if they have missed them for the whole session? Well, it might also mean that they are still learning to use the video platform and they’ll see your kid next time.


And speaking of next time, we will follow up today’s post by looking at the way in which teacher amend their questions to challenge your child at the right level for them.


Until them, happy learning!

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