Ed School Writing: The Tyranny of Raised Hands

This was also written about five years ago, during my literacies class. It wasn’t an assignment, but something I wrote for my blog, a writeup of a class experience. While this may seem much ado about nothing, the issue of calling on students is a big deal today. For example, Explicit Direct Instruction orders teachers to randomly call on students, and many teachers protest. My own policy is much as I describe it here–it held up to reality!

Why do so many teachers ask a question of the class and then look for students who raise their hands? Hand to god, I don’t understand this. Why give students all that control?

I’ve wondered this for years now, particularly when I watch beginning or simply ineffective teachers. But today, I learned that there might be a genuine philosophy behind such madness.

The “Literacies” class has very little to do with actual literacy, but every so often we have some interesting discussions in our section. Today, we were talking about the assessing silence. Why don’t some students talk? How do you determine the cause of their silence?

I observed that silence shouldn’t be pathologized. Some students are just more reserved than others, or maybe they just aren’t interested. But we all agreed that some students are quiet because of confusion or unhappiness, and that teachers should reach out to these students to ensure they understand.

Gerry asked, “What about the students who simply refuse to participate?” and I know he’s thinking about one of our students in our placement.

Another STEPpie talked about her teacher’s use of “name cards”. Sometimes, instead of selecting from the students who are raising their hands, the teacher will randomly pick a name card and call that. The STEPpie said that people could even just pretend to use namecards and just pick the person they want to call on–but the random nature of the cards will ensure that no student feels picked on.

God forbid that a teacher should give the impression that it’s her damn classroom and that she can call on whoever she wants because she wants to know whether or not the kid in question knows the answer. Heaven forfend that a teacher should be anything other than subservient to her students’ wishes and preferences. Such is the abiding finality of the student preference that if a teacher is to actually request a response from a student without first ascertaining his interest, then she must be able to blame the Fickle Finger of Fate. Certainly, such blatant disregard for the comfort level of her students can’t be attributed to anything like the teacher’s determination that this particular level of discomfort will just have to be endured. Or, perish the thought, that the discomfort of answering a question might be in the student’s best interest. No, the teacher has to blame an outside agency if she wants to solicit a response from the Bartleby students who “prefer not to”.

I’m sitting there trying not to mutter when the class instructor says, “Actually, I set an entirely different standard when I teach. I tell my students that I have three modes of requesting response. The first is open–anyone can respond without raising their hand. The second mode is show of interest–I’ll ask for people to raise their hands. The third is directed–I will call on someone specific. I invite anyone who doesn’t want to ever be called on to talk to me privately, but your objections can’t be anything like ‘I don’t want to talk in class.’ I find that this gives me more freedom to assess students and ensure that class participation is balanced.”

Well, didn’t that ruin all my fulminations.

I raise my hand. “That’s exactly what I do, except the part about students bringing their objections to me because I could care less if they don’t like it. In fact, I have to break my students of the habit of raising their hands every time they have an answer. I tell them that they don’t have to raise their hands unless I say to, but they do have to take a beat to see if I’ve called on someone else, because I do get cranky if the wrong person answers when I’ve pointed to someone specific.”

“What do you do if the same person answers all the time?”

“I have a conversation with the kids who know all the answers and tell them to ratchet it back.”

“But don’t they get upset?”

“No. ‘Hey, I want you to stop responding for a while, okay? I know that you’re on top of things, so try not to answer unless I call on you for a while. Otherwise, everyone in the class will let you do all the work! You’re doing great, and you’re not in trouble. But until everyone else is participating at your level, I need your help, okay?”

Another math student bursts out, “But look. I think it’s…cruel, really, to call on students who don’t want to be called on. Think about how fearful they are. Think how afraid they are of being wrong.”

(While I’m presenting my response as if it were immediate, I actually waited through several other comments because we’re supposed to “self-monitor our class discussion participation” which means Shut UP, Yappers, and I’m a yapper.)

“We always talk about how students are fearful of making mistakes and how we have to encourage them to stop being so afraid, that mistakes are no big deal and just part of learning. Then the same people who talk about how the answer isn’t important, the process is important go on and on about how we shouldn’t call on students because they’re terrified of making mistakes. So we validate their fears?”

(What I didn’t say: And oh, by the way, the same people who say we should choose whatever makes students comfortable when it comes to interacting with the teacher firmly believe that students should be given no choice about being forced to work in small groups and be graded on how well they participate in said groups. But no matter.)

Anyway. It appears that many teachers don’t call on students randomly and accept the limitation of just a few students to choose responses from. They do this because students may feel “picked on” or “terrified”.

But to any new teachers reading this blog: don’t live by the tyranny of the raised hands. Make your own destiny and ruin some poor kid’s day.


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