One Small Thing: No Hands Up


If you want to improve student engagement, one incredibly simple strategy is to implement a No Hands Up policy in your classroom. It means exactly what it says: Students don't raise their hands to answer a question or contribute to a conversation. You call on students regardless of whether they have raised their hands or not.

It sounds simple, but it can be incredibly hard to break our teacher habits of only calling on the kids with their hands up. Yet, only calling on students who volunteer by raising their hands means that lots of kids in your classroom - really, anyone without their hand up - can opt out of the work. And you likely aren't getting good data back when you check for understanding to see if you need to make adjustments in your lesson, because you're not hearing from a fair sampling of your students. 

So, a No Hands Up policy - or, as Teach Like a Champion calls it, Cold Call - establishes the expectation in your classroom that all students should always be ready to share their thoughts and participate, that to be in your class means they are expected to be a part of the conversation. It allows you to check for understanding effectively. It can increase your speed and pacing since you're not waiting for volunteers. Delivered with warmth and a smile, it communicates that we genuinely care about what all of our students say and think and that they have valuable thoughts to contribute. Perhaps most importantly, it's a practice grounded in inclusiveness and equity; when you call on students whether or not they have volunteered, you are more likely to include students' voices equitably and fairly.

To use this strategy, you really only need one tool - a random name generator. Mike Schmoker recommends a set of popsicle sticks with kids' names written on them in a can with two discreet sides that the students can't see. I like this set up because it gives me much more control than a tech tool. When I draw a students' name, I can call on him or her and then move their popsicle stick to the other side so that I know I've called on them and have temporarily taken their name out of circulation ... but the kids don't know that.  That way, if I want to call on them again I can easily do so, and I'm the only one who knows I've done that strategically. Popsicle sticks also give me wiggle room to not call on a student if needed. For example, let's say that I know Cindy has had a hard morning and she needs a bit of space for a bit. With popsicle sticks, I can intentionally not draw her name until she gets warmed up. 

Here are a few important things to keep in mind when you implement this policy:

  • Be consistent: Cold Call or No Hands Up needs to be consistent and predictable. Over time, it will change behavior because students will know that they need to be prepared to contribute at any time. If you use it randomly or as a "gotcha," students can feel ambushed or caught off guard, and it can become more of a discipline tool than an engagement strategy.
  • Be systematic: Using the set up I mentioned above, students know that there is a fair and equitable system to be called on in class that is used every time. The message this sends is, "This is how we do business here." 
  • Be positive: The purpose is to generate positive engagement in the work of the classroom, so we want to be sure to leave out judgement or emotion. Questions should be asked clearly, calmly, and universally. A Cold Call isn't a punishment; it's a student's chance to shine and a class's chance to hear from every single member of the community. We want students to succeed and feel proud of what they've contributed.
  • Be prepared: There's no shortcut to knowing in advance what question you're asking and what the ideal student response is. When we Cold Call with unclear questions, students could feel unsure or caught off guard as they struggle to understand what's being asked. And if we don't know in advance the student answer we're listening for, we don't know when to press for precision or bounce the answer to another student. 
  • Sequence your questions: This technique is especially effective when you think about the sequence of questions you have in hand and ask them carefully, quickly, and in a logical progression of difficulty. This improves not only pacing but also presses for productive struggle as they stay minds-on through everyone's questions and answers, ready to add on and take the thinking to the next step.
About No Hands Up, formative assessment guru Dylan Wiliam writes, "Everyone hated No Hands Up at first. Teachers hated it because it disrupted their routines. The students who had their hands up all the time hated it because they couldn't show off that they knew the answer. The students who never raised their hands hated it because now they couldn't stay 'below the radar' and instead had to pay attention. But over time, the class became more cohesive. One high achieving student, William, said, 'I never knew my classmates were so smart.' When students were allowed to raise their hands, the classroom dialogue was dominated by the quickest students, not necessarily the ones with the most important or interesting things to say. And the students who used to have their hands up all the time (actually, just most of the time, not all the time) said they always seemed to get called on when they didn't know. The result was that students saw that everyone got things wrong at times, which made the class more supportive of each other as learners."

Want to learn more about making this work in your classroom? Here are some resources:
Here's to simply teaching well,

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