No Hands Up

In March last year I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of attending a workshop on formative assessment run by Dylan Wiliam. It was the chance to meet one of my key influencers within education. I had previously watched the documentary, The Classroom Experiment, where his methods were introduced to a class of pupils in England and while I had previously read about formative assessment as a student, it was this documentary that inspired me to implement a No Hands Up policy in my classroom.

For the uninitiated, pupils are no longer able to raise their hands to answer questions in class (though they can, of course, ask questions). The names of students are written on lollipop sticks and the sticks are kept in a pot on the teacher’s desk. Names are then selected at random when asking for responses from students. This eliminates the self-response system of students raising their hands which invariably leads to the same students contributing to lessons and less engagement amongst the others.

Sounds terrifying, right?

It is important not to put students on the spot. As much as possible, I make sure students cannot answer incorrectly. My aim is to limit the asking of so-called ‘Googleable questions’ (see my previous article on the topic of asking questions), instead I am asking for student opinions or reasoning about an issue. Such questions are generally more interesting and require higher thinking. The fear of answering incorrectly is therefore removed. It is also important to ask the question before selecting the student. This ensures all students are thinking of an answer and are therefore engaged in the lesson. If a student cannot respond, we simply select another stick.

The dominant students report feeling frustrated that their voice is not always heard and quieter students frequently report that they dislike the sticks (at least in the beginning). I believe that as with all changes in classroom practice, this is a question of school culture and that the more teachers who use this method with students, the easier they will adapt to it.

Of the many methods Wiliam puts forward, this is a practice that he says is non negotiable for schools. Without it Wiliam states, we are in danger of making assessment need decisions based on the responses of a few confident students to questions.

we are in danger of making assessment need decisions based on the responses of a few confident students

The method can be further adapted by the teacher. The use of mini whiteboards or traffic light coloured plastic cups are further examples of gauging the needs of the students.

I am very positive towards the use of this method and having started off with one class as a trial, I rolled out the No Hands Up policy to all of my classes last year. Besides the needs assessment aim, I have found the sticks to be very practical when it comes to classroom management. They help with learning students’ names and I intend to adapt my sticks further next year to include the photo of the students. Other teachers have engaged the students in the creation of their own sticks which further personalises them. When organising random groups for class discussion or simply taking register the sticks prove useful too.

Consistency in using this method is important. I aim to improve this and ensure I always remember to take them to class. Remembering to ask ‘good’ questions is something I have posted on before. When time is limited in class and you have content you need to cover, it is tempting to choose the easier route and ask a student you know knows the answer so you can move on – but this defeats the purpose of the sticks and the practice of formative assessment. If the class are not following you, you need to pause and go back.

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Meeting Dylan Wiliam with colleagues from Engelska Skolan

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