December 11, 2014

*REMINDER: $50 Amazon gift card giveaway ends on Friday, 12/12. Enter every day until then! :)*How Raising Hands Makes Kids Smarter

I had just started teaching a new group of students for Sunday school. After I introduced myself to the students, I immediately insisted on hand-raising. One kid rolled his eyes at me, as if to say, “Really? You’re going to make us do this?”

Hand raising makes kids smarter

I shot him the look. He raised his hand.

I mean, I kind of get it. There were only six kids in the class that day– was this really necessary?

Yes. Yes, it was. When it comes to kids and learning, I almost always insist on hand-raising, whether it’s a group of 5 or 35. It’s not just because I’m a stickler for order, which I totally am. It’s because I really truly believe it helps students learn better.

A major goal of teaching is to get kids to THINK

I would argue that education shouldn’t be so much about getting right answers as it should be about encouraging productive thinking. In a class of 30 students, it is more important to me to have all of them thinking hard than to have five kids answering correctly or quickly. If I see the wheels cranking in thirty of their brains, we are making progress. I don’t mind if no one raises their hand for a while. They are exercising their minds, and that is good!

So what does this have to do with raising hands? In my opinion, nothing stops productive thinking faster than someone blurting out the answer. In any given classroom, you will always have some students who arrive at answers more quickly than others. Every time you let just ONE of them give out an answer prematurely, it’s one more time you have halted the thinking process of everyone else. This often happens even if there is more than one correct answer. We all do this. After students get used to the same handful of classmates calling out answers all the time, many unconsciously don’t even bother to mentally engage anymore: Oh, I don’t have to think about it. She’s just going to call on Joey anyway. Like she always does. You will have effectively trained much of the class to stop thinking about your questions altogether.

This is tragic. This means that during lessons, you have a handful of students extremely engaged, answering most of the questions. You have a handful who are very engaged, trying to follow along, but not finishing many of their thinking processes to the end (due to other kids answering out loud too soon). You have a handful who are tuned in and out of your lesson, and then you have a large portion of the class physically present, but mentally checked out. What motivation they may have started with to stay focused disappeared when they realized that they couldn’t keep up, and that no one was going to wait for them. Tragic! Waiting just a few more seconds before taking the first answer could have made all the difference.

If they knew that you were always going to wait for them to think things through and that you were going to wait for more kids to raise their hands to participate, then more and more students would engage in the thinking process and raise their hands to volunteer answers. (Just to be clear: It’s not the raised-hands-with-answers that we’re going for. It’s the thinking that precedes it.)

I’m not saying you should move at the pace of your slowest learner, either. Every teacher knows that the range of competency in a classroom can be huge, and only increases with age, class size, and diversity. But you should try to keep as many students engaged as possible at all times, and being intentional about hand-raising is one way to do that.

How I teach it

At the beginning of each new year, I would explain my philosophy of hand-raising:

If you ever want to give an answer, you will need to raise your hands first and wait to be called on. I know you’ve done this before in other classes, but I’m going to insist on it almost every single time. You see, I have a real problem with people blurting out answers in class. It’s not just because it’s rude, or because you’re interrupting, or because you’re cutting in front of others. It’s because, as a teacher, it’s important to me that my students THINK, and when you blurt out answers, it stops everyone else from trying to think of it themselves.

I don’t mind if you give the wrong answers, and I don’t mind if you make mistakes! As long as you learn from it, it’s allll good. I DO mind if you stop other people from THINKING though, and nothing does that more quickly than someone blurting out the answer. Not okay. You will raise your hands and wait for me to call on you.

I might take a while to call on anyone. It’s not because I don’t see you. It’s because I’m giving everyone else a chance to think things through. Be patient. And if you usually don’t raise your hand to participate, you should think about starting now. I will be waiting for you. So if you’re used to checking out or not participating, that’s going to have to change. Even if you don’t raise your hand, I can TELL if you’re thinking about my question, so you’d better pay attention!

Now here’s what’s going to happen. I’ll ask a question, like, “What did you do this weekend?” and some of you will know immediately. Go ahead. Raise your hand if you already know what you’d say.

(8 kids shoot their hands into the air, excited to share.)

Okay. I see your hands, but here’s what happens next. I’m gonna look at you, and that means I see your hand up, but I’m not going to call on you. It’s not because I don’t like you, or because I don’t want to hear what you have to say. It’s because I’m giving the rest of the class some time to think it through. You will keep your hand up, and you will keep waiting, and you will build some SUPER DUPER BICEPS as you patiently keep your hand in the air! Yes, you will. Because raising your hand gets TIRING. I KNOW. I’ve been there, guys. But I don’t want to see whiny arms or hear your deep “I’m waiiiiting!” sighs (act out example). Seriously guys, don’t need that. Just be patient and get used to it.

whiny arm and impatient sigh

Then, like we do with almost all new procedures in my class, we practice a couple rounds, where I throw out a simple question that nearly everyone can answer right away, and I make all my hand-raisers wait extrraaaa long just for fun and just for practice. They get the idea, and it’s usually not a problem.

By the way, mentioning little things like, “Raising your hand gets TIRING. I KNOW… just be patient and get used to it,” goes a really long way in preventing whiny and impatient kids the rest of the year. Seriously, it just takes one sentence at the right time to prevent a lot of small undesirable behaviors!

By the second day, they are used to holding their hands up and waiting. When I pose a question or ask for thoughts from my students, it is always satisfying to see more and more hands join in as I continue to wait. Eventually, my students know I’m expecting them all to engage, so instead of passively sitting around watching other kids answer the questions, they themselves engage in thinking sooner, raise their hands sooner, and I have a lot more kids participating quickly.

You will have to train them to do it. You have to consistently show them that you really will wait for them, and they will respond by being there, more and more quickly as they get the hang of things. I usually wait around 7-10 seconds (it feels longer than you’d think) if it’s a question I really want them to ponder over. During those seven seconds, you can see it on their faces when they suddenly switch from passive mode to engaged mode. It’s interesting to watch every time. Once they understand how this works, and get used to constantly engaging, then you can play with your timing… sometimes taking answers sooner than at other times, depending on the situation.

Hand-raising helps the shy students

If you are consistent in waiting it out, you will also find that even previously “very shy” students will feel safe to raise their hands and participate. It might take a little bit of training at first, but when everybody realizes that you really will wait for them, then they all start thinking more, and eventually more and more feel safe to participate.

Every year, I read notes on my students from the teachers who had them before. I read their IEPs (Individualized Education Plans), and sometimes, I skimmed their old report cards to get a feel for where they were coming from. I saw who had a special family situation, who had just started attending our school in March, and who needed to wear glasses but always “forgot” them.

I also saw who the very shy kids were, because teachers usually noted, “extremely shy.”I always made it a personal challenge to warm those kids up and to help them feel comfortable participating in classroom conversations. Regulating hand-raising was a big part of this, and it was always so satisfying when I could report back at parent conferences that their child was raising their hand to volunteer answers in class. Parents would always be surprised, “REALLY? That’s so wonderful to hear! He never used to participate! I’m so glad!” By the end of the year, it would be hard to guess who the “shy kids” were based solely on classroom participation. Sure, they were there, but they had grown more confident about participating, and it was great to hear their contributions to our class conversations!

This has worked for less experienced teachers, too!

This has worked year after year in my own classes, and I am happy to share that it has worked for other classes, too. Earlier this year, I gave a teacher training for our children’s Sunday school program at church introducing our new behavior system. In the middle of my training, as I was going through examples of how to use the new system, I found myself going on a 10-minute tangent on the importance of hand-raising, and the importance of regulating that in a classroom. I got the feeling that some of the teachers thought this was kind of a strict thing to enforce in such a small and temporary classroom setting, but I pressed on. I more or less shared what I’ve shared here, emphasizing how enforcing hand-raising (1) encourages more thinking overall, and (2) makes the shy kids feel more safe to think and participate.

While this wasn’t the focus of my training, it turns out it was a very helpful portion! Imagine my delight when, months later, I received an email from our Sunday school director who told me that “the kids behave very well and the kids who don’t usually participate are talking more.” Later on, one of the teachers wrote me herself and said, “Your way of behavior check of raising hands is wonderful!  The [students] are so much well behaved and respond very well to it.  It gives the opportunity for the quieter kids to participate and more structure for the class!  Thanks so much for the demo and instruction!”

WOOHOO! See, guys, it doesn’t work just for me, but also for someone who has a non-kid day job :).

So there it is. That’s why I’m a stickler for hand-raising. Not just because I like things to be orderly (which it is) or because I think it curbs poor behavior (which it does), but because I think it ultimately makes kids smarter and feel safer.

10 responses to “How Raising Hands Makes Kids Smarter”

  1. Florence says:

    I’ve tried that several times (not all the time, because I’m real bad at being consistent), and it’s incredible! I realize I’ve been relying on 4-5 good students to lead the answers, while I left 15-20 others sit around and lose interest… 🙁

    • joellen says:

      It’s amazing what waiting a few seconds can do for the overall interest and engagement level, right? I’m so glad you gave it a try! =D

  2. Dakota says:

    I’m not sure if I’ll ever use this (who knows) but it is SO interesting to know about the reasoning behind it. (I’m an information junkie.) There’s so much psychology wrapped up in teaching!

  3. Christi Ellis says:

    JoEllen to what age do you use the hand raising method? I’m just starting to teach 12-13 year old girls at my church. Would you recommend it for a small class of 5 girls who are all friends, VERY talkative, and super sweet? One of the girls is noticeably shyer than the others though… your thoughts?

    • joellen says:

      I had elementary school aged kids in mind when writing this. After that, I think it depends a lot on the group dynamics, age, and size of the group. For a group of five friends who are all sweet girls, I wouldn’t enforce it. I would try to be extra careful to find ways to include the shyer girl, though, with cues and hints to the other girls when you’d like them to pause and give everyone a chance to share. Also, for shy kids, one way to get them to talk is to go in a circle. Try to create opportunities where they can share successfully and comfortably, so be sure to make the question something everyone, especially the shy child, will be comfortable answering. Also give everyone a heads up before you do it, and then give them all some time to consider their answer before starting the go-around.

      I think you totally have the intuition and will know how to teach well while keeping an eye out for the shy one =).

      • Christi Ellis says:

        Okay thanks! I will try the circle thing…with prep time for answers. You are amazing. thanks for all your insight from your education and experience teaching! 🙂

  4. Sheila says:

    As a long time teacher, I just want to say again how much I enjoy your writing and the way that you not only teach what to do … very helpful to new teachers (or staff in other settings) but also the rationale or reason why to do it that way and the benefits behind it. that is one of the hardest things to get staff to understand, that there is a reason behind what we do! thanks again!

    • joellen says:

      Thanks, Sheila! I’m so glad you appreciate the suggestions and the thinking behind it :D. Makes it all feel worthwhile to pound out these posts! 🙂 Thanks for reading!

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