Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: The teacher asked a question, you had the perfect answer — a concise and trenchant response — but someone else's name was called. The other student made an astute comment, everyone nodded and moved on, your idea was forgotten, and you missed your chance to contribute.
This model of classroom participation is common, despite decades of research suggesting we do away with it. I used it all the time, and would be now if I were teaching still. But it's ineffective. For kids, not being called on can be deflating and dispiriting, and what's worse, if it happens often enough, it can be discouraging to the point where they just stop trying.
When I was a kid in elementary school, there was generally just one strategy for me to show I was actively engaged in a conversation: raise my hand and hope the teacher called on me instead of any of the other students. Those are tough odds. Luckily for me, I was the type of kid who raised his hand often enough to be hard to ignore. One of my very first concrete memories is of my kindergarten teacher gently telling me to stop waving my hand in her face. Even decades later, in grad school for education, I had to limit myself to just a few comments or questions during a class session — which was never easy.
But a lot of people don't operate this way, and it's not beneficial to the group if only the most gregarious, outgoing, or extroverted kids dominate a discussion. Group conversations are part of the pulse of a classroom, and they can't accurately reflect the entire range of personalities when only a few members are able to speak.
I had a professor who once reminded me that when a question is posed of a group, some people are processing their answers — while others are processing the question, and others still are reviewing their notes (mental or otherwise) to follow the conversational thread. But even keeping this in mind, when I became a teacher, it was all too easy to fall back into the trap. I'd catch myself reading a book aloud to a group of second-graders and a hand would shoot up, and without a moment's hesitation I'd call on the student. They'd say their peace, and we'd move on.
But what about the others? The kids who needed a little more time, or those who weren't following the thread of the book? What about those who'd never raise their hand to speak in front of all their peers, even if they had all the time in the world? These are the kids we label as "quiet," "disengaged," or "shy."
Some kids — and adults, for that matter — just don't thrive in whole-group situations. Some express their understanding best in writing, some with art; some can speak freely in small groups but are paralyzed in a crowd; some will never be fully comfortable expressing themselves in words. It's unfair to assume that we all process the world in the same way, and even worse to judge their content understanding and social contributions with no other criteria.
When all we do is call on people one at a time in a large group, we risk engaging harmful biases. For one thing, boys are statistically more likely to be called on than girls in school. For another, we disregard cultures and personalities that may not value group performance as much as one-on-one interactions or any other means of connecting with material and people.
We know too much about intelligence, learning styles, emotional development, and behavior not to commit to changing the way we define and assess what it looks like to participate. Teachers who pay close attention to this vein of pedagogy have been searching for — and developing — alternate, equitable means of participation for decades. It was back in 1981, for example, that Dr. Frank Lyman of the University of Maryland proposed the now-classic "think-pair-share" method, wherein a question is posed of a group, and everyone is given time to think in silence. Then the students are paired up to discuss their thoughts one-on-one, before finally the class discusses the issue as a group.
The commitment to making participation easier need not be relegated to the classroom. Business meetings, workshops, family gatherings, church groups — different learning and participation styles are present in all communities. Asking a question and leaving time to think — "wait time" — can be incredibly powerful, as can letting people journal, discuss with a partner, read a response aloud, or prepare an answer and share it at another time.
We don't need to do away with hand-raising entirely. It can be a quick, practical way to get input from a few members of a group, which can be necessary. But if it's the only way we assess engagement, understanding, and contribution to public discourse, we aren't being equitable. And what's worse, we are missing out on key voices in whatever small community we're leading.
It's well worth asking ourselves, whether we're teachers, parents, bosses, or anyone with leverage and control over a group: How do we want people to show their engagement, their understanding, and their desire to contribute? How are we making that as easy as possible?
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