Reflecting on … Oracy: The Value of Hands-Down Questioning.

Hands-up questioning can make the classroom feel like an active, vibrant place where students keenly engage with the learning.  I’ve generally found this to be an illusion.

There can be few things worse, in the course of a normal lesson, than asking a question or opening a discussion only to be met with silence.  Anxiety can instantly take over and there is a strong temptation to turn to the student who always has something useful to say to “rescue” the moment and move the lesson forwards.

For a lot of reasons, it can therefore be very reassuring when trying to lead a discussion or a question-and-answer session to see students actively engaging waving their hands and keen to contribute.  And it can seem just plain unfair not to turn to the keen engaged student and involve them in the lesson at that point.

Outside of the moment, we know that the hands-up method doesn’t necessarily reflect the quantity of knowledge in the classroom, or engagement with the lesson.  30-50% of highly engaged students can hide a lot of gaps in my delivery and the students’ understanding, but it is tempting nonetheless.

Hands-up questioning can also feel more comfortable.  The flow of the lesson generally feels quicker as a fast pace of interaction between teacher and student can be maintained.  And it is tempting to think that those who do not have their hands up will learn from exposure to the answers and dialogue around them (and this may well be true in a number of cases).

Galton’s (2002) research in this area was significant in shifting my mental attitude.  He interviewed pupils about questioning in the classroom.  The reasons they gave for being reluctant to contribute are probably ones with which we are all familiar such as fear of being accused of being “boffins” (it was 2002).  Interestingly they also expressed concern about interacting with the teacher and meeting teachers’ expectations.  One described the experience of answering questions as being like “walking a tightrope” in terms of reaching for a particular goal that the teacher has in mind but which only they know.  Both of the above speak to the importance of creating a positive classroom culture where contributions are valued by all in the room, including the teacher.

Beyond this, though, what struck me from the research was the range of strategies students have for not contributing to lessons, especially with new teachers.  Hands-up questioning gives them the power to shape the nature and flow of discussion within the classroom.  Common strategies include:

  • Putting their hands up quickly knowing that it reduces the chance they will be called upon.
  • Using body language and facial expressions to give the impression that they are thinking really hard and just need a little more time.
  • Jumping in early on when they expect things to be “easy” making them “safe” from more challenging questions later.
  • Dropping their hands if they think the teacher is about to turn to them.
  • Using some version of “someone else has said my idea” as a substitute for contributing.

This is not to deny that there are very legitimate concerns with managing hands-down questioning.  Switching to hands-down questioning can feel nerve-wracking.  What if it makes students anxious?  Or leads to a constant loop of silent stares and “I don’t knows”? (Actually this would be tells me something important, but it still doesn’t feel comfortable.)  It is right to ‘force’ participation?

As ever, planning can help make this successful.  I find it helpful to think carefully about how I would call on people and how to distribute my questioning around the class.  With practise, certain routines can become ‘habit’ and so need less careful planning, but it is still something I think about a lot when planning a questioning sequence.  I find it particular important to think about how to manage anxiety, something which I do not always get right, especially with new classes.  Planning space for student discussion and thinking time can be important here.

The following are strategies I have found helpful at different times:

  • Random selection of students – when I started teaching this involved lollypop sticks. Now the computer can generate ‘random picks’ of students but the principle is the same.  An equal chance of being selected can encourage all students to pay full attention and be prepared to participate.  Pitfalls such as student anxiety can be reduced with the right atmosphere and thinking/discussion time before participation.  If a student is truly stuck inviting them to select someone to help them answer the question can throw them a ‘lifeline’ whilst still encouraging active participation.  I find this very helpful for new classes, occasional quizzes and when I anticipate students having a lot to say but I have time only for a few ideas or contributions.
  • Targeted selection of students – questioning can be differentiated as effectively as any other part of the lesson. By thinking about which students should be answering my questions, and what level of ‘thinking’ they involve, I can encourage maximum participation.  As with any differentiation, knowing the students is vital; I want to move them out of their comfort zone but not place them into a space of such anxiety that learning becomes impossible.  This is not always easy, especially with new classes.  With classes I know well, it is more about ensuring that I don’t ‘label’ students or limit their exposure to higher-level thinking and discussion but underestimating their contribution.  I have discussed this issue in my blog on ‘Equitable Questioning’ here:
  • Allowing space for additional contributions – the strategies above leave me in control of questioning but sometimes students’ ideas and flashes of insight exceed expectations. In an extended or creative discussion I will often follow the initial hands-down questioning with an invitation for students to contribute if they have any new ideas or a different way of thinking about the issue than we have raised so far.
  • Let students know what to expect – building routines can be difficult, especially as hands-up participation may be the best tool at times. Even if this is not the case in my lessons, students may be used to it elsewhere.  I find it is helpful to scaffold towards full hands-down questioning by reminding them at the start of the task how I’ll be taking input and also giving them strategies to prepare.  I remind them that they have time to discuss so they can contribute with ideas from their group, or ask for help during the discussion time if really stuck.  When we move onto questioning and hand shoot up, I like to make this a positive and say something along the lines of “Thank you for offering, but I don’t need your help choosing people on this one, because I think everyone could offer something.”
  • Full display – sometimes questioning is an easy routine to slip into, bridging different parts of the lesson. However I find it important to remember that there are other tools, especially if I really want to see what all my students understand.  Answers on whiteboards, or stand-up/sit-down whole-class responses give me a much fuller picture of my students’ understanding of some issues.  Sometimes I have to fight the tendency to ‘drop into’ teacher-led questioning out of habit and remind myself that, even with hands-down questioning, I can still only interact with a very small number of students at any time using this method.

Reflecting on questioning…

  • Do my routines allow students to ‘hide’ in my classroom, perhaps encouraging me to think they have understood material or concepts that they have yet to master?
  • Do my students understand how they will be feeding back on a particular activity so that they can prepare for this if they need to?
  • Is a question-answer sequence the best tool for understanding what my students have learned in this activity?

Interested in further reading?  I recommend:

Coultas, V. (2012). Classroom talk: Are we listening to teachers’ voices? English in Education, 46(2), 175-189.


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