I recently watched BBC’s Classroom Experiment with Dylan William (YouTube video above). While the program is interesting on so many levels, I was especially drawn to William’s first intervention that effectively bans hand-raising from the classrooms he works with, and replaces the practice with popsicle sticks. You can also read more about it in, “Where Hands-Up In Class is Banned”.

While watching the segment on hands-up (from about 5:20 – 16:16), I jotted down notes about my beliefs on student engagement and participation. I think they’re pretty standard:

  • Every child deserves a level playing field that is not dominated by those that demand the teacher’s attention.
    • Students that monopolize the conversation need to give way for participation from other students.
  • Teachers need to hear from students that do not participate.
    • There should be no place to hide for kids that are unwilling or presently unable to engage in their learning.
  • At some level, students deserve a classroom culture where it is okay to be wrong.
    • Highly participative students need to understand what it is like to be picked when they don’t know the answer.
    • Not knowing answers should not be a barrier for participation or engagement.

The apparent controversy of banning hands-up as an engagement and assessment tool is actually covered quite heavily online. Do a quick Google Search and you’ll find news articles ranging from School Bans Pupils from Raising Hands in Class to Hands-up: Bring back the practice into the classroom, says government behavioural tsar. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, we can all agree that when students forgo the opportunity to learn, it’s a problem.

When I look back on my own education, I remember feeling a lot of the same feelings as some of the kids in the video towards hands-up. As a kid, I remember coming home from school and telling my mom that my teacher never calls on me as much as I wanted them to.

“They see me raising my hand and then glance over it only to pick someone who isn’t even raising their hand!”

– Zach Groshell, 5 years old

Every class has a couple of these over-sharing kids in attendance, and according to the video above it might be close to only 25% of students that consistently put their hands up. This is a problem.

Whenever I complained about not being called on enough in class, my mom would tell me that she had the opposite problem when she was a student. She, the only Deaf student living in a small rural town, would try to hide in the back of the class, hoping desperately that the teacher wouldn’t call on her. If she was called on, she likely hadn’t heard what the question was, and came armed with a common defense mechanism – staring into her lap – until the teacher became uncomfortable and asked someone else to share. That’s also a problem.

Inside Train Boy Kid Child Rail Person Little

The experience isn’t unique to me, my mom, or the kids in the video. My wife and co-writer here on educationrickshaw.com wrote about her personal experiences with whole class participation in How Teachers Can Prioritize Building Confidence and Risk-Taking. While she was an A+ student grade-wise, her teachers’ main complaint at conferences was that she would never raise her hand to participate, even when it was clear that she knew the answers. This is why she has since dedicated herself to creating a culture in her classroom that values learning as a process, not one where students fear being wrong or looking “stupid”.

To Raise Hands or to Not Raise Hands, That is Not the Question

Obviously, hands-up has worked for a long time, and it has its place in my and every other classroom I have visited to some degree. Is hands-up truly as damaging as BBC’s Classroom Experiment would suggest, or is this more an issue of exercising better judgement about who you call on, and how often you call on whom? And, are there other randomization devices and techniques that are equally or more effective than the “lollipop sticks” employed during William’s intervention?

“Quite frankly, if you have a teacher asking the same one boy in the class to always answer questions, that is a bigger problem even than using lollipop sticks.”

– Tom Bennett, from The Telegraph

Ultimately, it might be silly to talk in extremes and start banning hands-up entirely.  Instead, we should question how often we employ this age-old technique – one that is so ingrained in our own experiences in education that it seems like an essential component of a lesson – and seek to add a range of effective techniques to our teaching toolkit.

A case for blended learning as an alternative to hands-up

In my class, I have popsicle sticks, as well as online randomization tools that are essentially digital popsicle sticks. These do the trick to send the message that every student at all times is responsible for participating and engaging in their learning when whole-group questioning is happening.

However, it can’t be denied that hands-up and popsicle sticks are not effective in eliciting the answers of all of the students in the classroom at once. The limitations on all techniques that involve calling on a rando-student are that only one student speaks at a time, and everyone else sits and listens. Even if you tried to go through every single student in the class one-by-one using hands-up or popsicle sticks, by the third or forth answer the students would be copying from the students who had answered before them. I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to have students share long-form responses with everyone in the room in a timely manner is through blended learning tools. For example:

Online forums

Participation can happen in many ways. Instead of asking students to raise hands to share a long-form answer, they could also do so in an online forum. In this way, the teacher is left with a record of what students have said, and who has and hasn’t participated. When teachers can see the responses either in real-time or after class, they can give feedback on the ideas and have students go back and edit their ideas for clarity. Students can continue the conversation at home, alone or with their parents, and you can always go back to the conversations during your conferencing.

Instead of “who would like to share”, have everyone share.

Commenting and Liking

I’m a big fan of using aspects of social media to engage students in learning. Commenting and liking, similar to what can be done in online discussion forums, is a way of collecting all of the answers on a shared platform so that everyone knows what everyone has said, and everyone feels compelled to participate.

Screenshot 2018-01-01 07.46.26.png
Instead of, asking for hands-up on “what are your thoughts, predictions, observations, etc..” have everyone comment and like.

Surveys and Polls

Sometimes it is a good idea to get all of the students thoughts on a topic on one form. An added benefit is when these surveys and polls turn into graphs and can really give teachers an idea of what their students are thinking. Again, my point about surveys and polls is not that they are a silver bullet solution to hands-up, but instead a simple recommendation that their inclusion in the class engages students and holds students accountable to participating.

Instead of, “Hands-up if you think….”, engage students with an online survey or poll and then share the results with the class.

Shared Boards and Documents

I have been using Padlet for some time for a variety of reasons. Perhaps its greatest use would be to have students share their responses in real time. The great thing about a platform like Padlet is that it takes just as much time to post a sticky as it does to think, raise your hand, and call out your response.

Screenshot 2018-01-01 08.12.54.png

Is hands-up damaging classrooms? I guess it depends on how you use it. If you rely almost exclusively on raising hands for sharing and participating, then I think your under-sharers will continue to undershare, and your over-sharers will dominate the conversation. If it is true that only 25 percent of students consistently raise their hands, then I’m interested in how I can reach the 75 percent everyday and every time I have a question. I propose blended learning tools as a way towards this end, but I’m sure there are a lot more ways teachers out there are choosing to rethink how they compel students to take control of their learning and share what they know and think.

Thanks for reading! If you have some thoughts on this or on any article, please don’t raise your hand. I much prefer you use the comments below.

Share your ideas by joining our Facebook group, Over-Posting Educators!

12 thoughts on “Does Hands-up Damage Classrooms?

  1. This is a great post! As an educator, I’ve gone through my equity arsenal each year and some things stick better than others depending on the group. This year, Padlet (mentioned in your post) has been used each and every day during our reading of The House on Mango Street and has proved successful. In everyday lessons and stories, I use rotations of equity strategies that work 90% of the time. With high school ESOL students, there are students, even after the Silent Period that absolutely REFUSE to speak, eating up time but only fuels my fire of picking on them to answer more because eventually they will see that while others teachers let them fail, I continued to work on them being the best in a space that encourages mistakes to jog true growth and learning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience! I’d love to hear more about the equity strategies that you are using. I completely agree that you can’t expect to use the same tools for every group and achieve the same result every time.


  2. Happy new year!

    Great article! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for opening the debate. I’ll check out the YouTube video later. I like all of your blended learning suggestions here and I also use them to give all students a voice. I have been doing this since reading ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain, a thought-provoking book about introverts. She did a great TED talk as well.

    Although I can understand the issues, I personally believe that these are caused by the teachers rather than the hands up practice. We can adapt our questioning techniques to ensure that everyone is engaged, thinking and responding. I also agree that a huge part of it is having a classroom culture where all answers are respected and it’s ok to be wrong. We should also be asking deeper questions where there isn’t necessarily a right and wrong. Widespread practices such as ‘think, pair, share’ are simple ways to combat these issues without the need for an absolute ban on hands up. I also think it’s important to value deep thinking over quick thinking. I consciously don’t call on the fastest kids to shoot their hands up.

    I’ll be following the discussion. Interested to hear the different opinions on this. I can totally believe that it is a huge issue.



    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great topic to discuss!
    In Deaf education at the preschool level I rely so much on THAT deaf student who always has his/her hand up and his/her advanced use of language (American sign Language or Spoken /Written English responses) to model to other deaf students ( who often have little or no language to share).
    The modeling is still important but,
    as the New Year rolls in my little students are going to get LOTS more equal chances by way of popcicle sticks and other alternative means of engagement!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been in your classroom and I am so impressed with how you field questions and get students to use language – especially when so many of your students come to you without language. For most of my students, they have already developed enough language to express themselves, and it comes down more to their confidence, their choice to be a listener rather than a leader, and the competition that comes from the “oversharers” that dominate the conversation. Since my students can type, write, draw, and record their voices, etc, there are many ways to get them participating and sharing besides raising hands.

      Hope you had a wonderful New Years 🙂


  4. More and more I’m using Turn & Talk strategies to help less articulate, more self-conscious or language-learning children get the opportunity to share thoughts. Rehearsal of ideas in a less-exposed partner situation gives these students some time and safety to prepare their responses, and if I ask respondents to report afterwards what their PARTNER said, rather than their own idea, I’m giving kids who may not have their “own” idea something to share as well as having kids who always have a quick reply the responsibility of listening and valuing the ideas of others. For 2nd graders who are not yet typing into Padlets, etc, this is an effective way to use a modified hands-up approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great article.
    I remember I was quite shy in school and even if I knew the answer I would think a thousand times before raising my hands.
    Loved your ideas..and wish that I can go back in time…and use these tools as a student.
    I strongly agree that for variety of students just a single way of feedback(raising your hands) is not enough. I personally would always prefer writing over speaking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A surprising amount of kids prefer writing over speaking, so if we can “kill two birds” by improving their writing while fielding questions, why not find ways to do that? Writing in paper journals is fine, but lacks the functionality for students to see all responses and to use multimedia


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