Where hands-up in class is banned

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
Girl with hand up in class

No more raised hands to answer questions, and a short, sharp burst of PE first thing every day. It's school - with a difference.

The more usual scenario is repeated in classrooms everywhere. Teacher asks a question. A few hands shoot up - always the same hands. The hands that aren't raised instead prop up drooping heads, or twiddle pens.

Those who raise their hands listen in class, engage with the topic and so achieve more highly. The others, often, let their attention drift. "They're foregoing the opportunity to get smarter," says Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education.

And so he banned hands-up when he took over a Year 8 class of 12 and 13-year-olds at Hertswood School, a Hertfordshire comprehensive, for the summer term. The pupils were guinea pigs, testing methods for grabbing - and holding - the attention of the whole class, not just the usual suspects.

Boys in particular can lag behind, so in another experiment for the BBC, choirmaster Gareth Malone turned teacher for a term at Pear Tree Mead Primary in Essex, to try to re-engage boys who don't like school. He taught the nine- to 11-year-olds outdoors, with running around and role-play in a clearing in the school grounds.

So what did they do - and why?


Image caption,
Slates - in hi-tech form - worked well

"When teachers ask questions, it's always the same few pupils who put up their hands. The others can slip below the teacher's radar, and therefore tune out," says Professor Wiliam.

So instead of a show of hands, the teacher would ask pupils at random to answer any questions. There was resistance at first.

"Those who didn't usually raise their hands were shocked that they had to pay attention. Those used to volunteering an answer were nonplussed by their removal from the spotlight," he says.

Teachers found they had to plan their lessons in more detail, formulating questions to draw out pupils who'd fallen out of the habit of responding in class.

A compromise was for the teacher to randomly pick two pupils to answer, then ask if anyone had anything to add, giving habitual answerers a chance to pitch in.

By far the most successful way to engage the whole class was to issue mini-whiteboards on which each pupil wrote their answer - an innovation being rolled out school-wide this term.

"Mini-whiteboards are standard issue in many schools, but are usually left in a cupboard.

"It's the return of the slate. Two hundred years ago, the best teachers were getting every child to write their answers on slates," says Professor William.


Image caption,
It can take as long to get in and out of PE kit

Children can veer from lethargy to fizzing with energy in the blink of an eye. So how about a burst of activity first thing to wake everyone up?

Physical education is part of the national curriculum, but many schools struggle to make time for it.

"Pupils spend a lot of time writing, and very little time getting out of breath. But research shows increasing oxygen levels in the brain can boost alertness," says Professor Wiliam.

To shoehorn in 10 minutes of PE first thing, his pupils had to start school earlier to allow time for changing in and out of sports gear.

This proved unpopular.

"It was only 10 minutes earlier, which they thought was a big deal and an impingement on their personal freedom. But some felt it made them more alert in morning lessons."

Exercises before school or work were popular early last century, with exponents including the Bauhaus arts and design group.

At Hertswood School, the extra PE took the form of circuit training, with pupils rotating through activities such as sprinting, skipping and bench steps. Particularly successful were the sessions supervised by older pupils taking sport as an elective.

"Often this would be quite an athletic boy. The boys would compete against his time, and the girls would try harder to impress him."


Image caption,
Gareth and the boys in their woodland classroom

Gareth Malone also introduced more movement into the school day at Pear Tree Mead Primary, by setting up an outdoor classroom.

With the hesitant blessing of the head teacher, he and the boys cleared a space in an overgrown wooded corner of the school grounds.

As well as lessons in this den, he encouraged rivalry and running around to see if their minds responded to being free-range.

The boys bellowed The Highwayman in the open air before chasing down Malone, dressed in breeches and cape, to put him on trial for robbery.

The aim was to improve their verbal skills - important for literacy - with the added incentive of a boys v girls debate.

Image caption,
Exercises before an open-air lesson in 1929

After years of non-competitive activities in which all must have prizes, is competition due a comeback in schools? Professor Wiliam says yes - if handled carefully.

"You've got to pitch it at just above their level.

"That's why the rivalry between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe was genuinely healthy - they were so close in ability, they pushed each other to do better. If it was me racing against one of them, I wouldn't compete, I'd give up."

Competition works best when pupils are in groups, he says, to encourage collaboration within the team and competition against their rivals.


Image caption,
Are we hooked on scores?

A. B+. B-. C. F. What did you get?

"The first thing pupils do is look at their score. Do you know what the second thing is? Look at what the others got. Any feedback from the teacher is ignored," says Professor Wiliam. "As soon as you grade them, learning stops."

So in his experimental classroom, projects were returned with no grades, just feedback. In an art lesson, for instance, pupils made gecko sculptures and were given written feedback on how to improve on their creation. Only once it had been reworked did their gecko get graded.

"They didn't like it. Pupils are like drug addicts, they're addicted to grades and we've got them hooked. They expect grades. Parents expect grades."

So did the pupils eventually respond to this, and other methods tried by Professor Wiliam?

"I was genuinely surprised that we managed to have a noticeable impact on their achievement - and at how much more confident they were."

Gareth Malone will also be interviewed on BBC Two's Newsnight on Thursday 9 September at 2230 BST

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