Tonight I was reading a blog post titled About assessment: Why are they raising their hands? In it, educator Donald Gately writes about a potential future conversation with his grandchildren, and they are confused why the children in old movies are doing silly things like raising their hands. His point is to say that these archaic behaviors will be — one day not long from now — more than somewhat mystifying to anyone examining them. Their future exchange is hilarious, but also carries a serious undertone for educators:
Grandpa, why do the kids keep putting their hands up, usually the right hand…
That’s what they did when they wanted to ask or answer a question. You also did that when you wanted to go to the bathroom.
Could they use their left-hand?
I guess… most kids were right-handed.
What happens next?
Well, the teacher would point at a kid, say his or her name, and the kid would answer the question.
How did the teacher know if the kid was going to give the right answer?
The teacher didn’t know?
So what did the teacher do when a kid gave the wrong answer?
Well, teachers took classes called Questioning Techniques on how to handle when students gave wrong answers. They’d say to some other kid, “What do you think of Johnny’s answer? — Anyone want to respond to Johnny?”
Wasn’t that embarrassing for the kid who gave the wrong answer?
I guess so, a little bit, but the class the teacher took was intended to help figure out a way to avoid that. Not really sure it worked.
What about the kids who didn’t raise their hands, or the kids who had their hands raised but didn’t get pointed at? How did the teacher know what they were learning?
Um, I guess the teacher didn’t. But some teachers gave points to kids who frequently raised their hands.
So then, didn’t many kids just raise their hands a lot to get the points.
Um… I don’t know… I never thought about that… You think they did that?
Grandpa, I’m sure kids did that.
What was the purpose of the kids raising their hands all the time? Was it for exercise? Did they have physical education classes back then or was it combined with other classes that they took because of the hand raising? Did their right shoulder muscles get all big out of proportion because of all the hand raising?
Well, I know the hand raising was a form of formative assessment for the teacher but you’re really making me think about this now.
It looks like school back then was a little bit like that show you like to watch, what’s it called? With that guy who never seems to get older, Alex Trebek?
Are you talking about Jeopardy?
Yeah… School back in the day was like Jeopardy wasn’t it grandpa?
Here’s why I say the undertone is serious: Do I want my classroom to be like jeopardy? While entertaining (for some) to watch, what does all that stored information translate to in terms of skills? Memorization of facts doesn’t equal skillful, more often than not. And can facts change? A question for another day…
So do I really want my kids sitting around the room answering questions? Sure, if I ask a quality question that requires them to think critically and evaluate and analyze, they are showing me their skills, and they are pushing to learn something new, but after the conversation moves in a different direction, they may not all get as much out of the discussion. Some kids might not be participating at all because they aren’t interested in the topic or haven’t done the lesson prep or maybe haven’t slept or eaten or had a warm place to rest. If they don’t care or can’t care about it, the quality of the questions matters very little or not at all. They are only talking one at a time. In a class period, that leaves little interaction per child.
On the other hand, if a child is asking the questions — is genuinely curious enough to ask a question, and another question, and another question — there is more learning taking place there. That child is pushing for more information, building their own questioning skills, clarifying their thinking, and building upon a framework that is their own. When they can work independently or with a small group, they can ask a lot more questions and get more interactions than they could in the whole group, hand-raising situation. A question answered implies the learning is done. A question asked signals the beginning or the building of momentum.
So we need to give students opportunities to ask the questions they already have. And if they don’t know how to be curious or ask a question because school has inadvertently (or maybe kind of accidentally on purpose) taught them not to, we reteach them the curiosity they had before school taught them to answer instead of ask.