Where hands-up in class is banned

Girl with hand up in class

Related Stories

No more raised hands to answer questions, and a short, sharp burst of PE first thing every day. It's school - with a difference.

The more usual scenario is repeated in classrooms everywhere. Teacher asks a question. A few hands shoot up - always the same hands. The hands that aren't raised instead prop up drooping heads, or twiddle pens.

Find out more

  • Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys is on BBC Two from Thursday 9 Sept, 2100 BST
  • And Dylan Wiliam's The Classroom Experiment is on BBC Two, 27 and 28 Sept at 1900 BST

Those who raise their hands listen in class, engage with the topic and so achieve more highly. The others, often, let their attention drift. "They're foregoing the opportunity to get smarter," says Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education.

And so he banned hands-up when he took over a Year 8 class of 12 and 13-year-olds at Hertswood School, a Hertfordshire comprehensive, for the summer term. The pupils were guinea pigs, testing methods for grabbing - and holding - the attention of the whole class, not just the usual suspects.

Boys in particular can lag behind, so in another experiment for the BBC, choirmaster Gareth Malone turned teacher for a term at Pear Tree Mead Primary in Essex, to try to re-engage boys who don't like school. He taught the nine- to 11-year-olds outdoors, with running around and role-play in a clearing in the school grounds.

So what did they do - and why?


Children hold up slates Slates - in hi-tech form - worked well

"When teachers ask questions, it's always the same few pupils who put up their hands. The others can slip below the teacher's radar, and therefore tune out," says Professor Wiliam.

So instead of a show of hands, the teacher would ask pupils at random to answer any questions. There was resistance at first.

"Those who didn't usually raise their hands were shocked that they had to pay attention. Those used to volunteering an answer were nonplussed by their removal from the spotlight," he says.

Teachers found they had to plan their lessons in more detail, formulating questions to draw out pupils who'd fallen out of the habit of responding in class.

A compromise was for the teacher to randomly pick two pupils to answer, then ask if anyone had anything to add, giving habitual answerers a chance to pitch in.

By far the most successful way to engage the whole class was to issue mini-whiteboards on which each pupil wrote their answer - an innovation being rolled out school-wide this term.

"Mini-whiteboards are standard issue in many schools, but are usually left in a cupboard.

"It's the return of the slate. Two hundred years ago, the best teachers were getting every child to write their answers on slates," says Professor William.


Pupils on a run It can take as long to get in and out of PE kit

Children can veer from lethargy to fizzing with energy in the blink of an eye. So how about a burst of activity first thing to wake everyone up?

Physical education is part of the national curriculum, but many schools struggle to make time for it.

"Pupils spend a lot of time writing, and very little time getting out of breath. But research shows increasing oxygen levels in the brain can boost alertness," says Professor Wiliam.

To shoehorn in 10 minutes of PE first thing, his pupils had to start school earlier to allow time for changing in and out of sports gear.

Start Quote

Dylan Wiliam

Pupils spend a lot of time writing, and very little time getting out of breath”

End Quote Dylan William

This proved unpopular.

"It was only 10 minutes earlier, which they thought was a big deal and an impingement on their personal freedom. But some felt it made them more alert in morning lessons."

Exercises before school or work were popular early last century, with exponents including the Bauhaus arts and design group.

At Hertswood School, the extra PE took the form of circuit training, with pupils rotating through activities such as sprinting, skipping and bench steps. Particularly successful were the sessions supervised by older pupils taking sport as an elective.

"Often this would be quite an athletic boy. The boys would compete against his time, and the girls would try harder to impress him."


Gareth Malone and his pupils Gareth and the boys in their woodland classroom

Gareth Malone also introduced more movement into the school day at Pear Tree Mead Primary, by setting up an outdoor classroom.

With the hesitant blessing of the head teacher, he and the boys cleared a space in an overgrown wooded corner of the school grounds.

As well as lessons in this den, he encouraged rivalry and running around to see if their minds responded to being free-range.

The boys bellowed The Highwayman in the open air before chasing down Malone, dressed in breeches and cape, to put him on trial for robbery.

The aim was to improve their verbal skills - important for literacy - with the added incentive of a boys v girls debate.

Using outdoor desks as exercise equipment at high school in 1929 Exercises before an open-air lesson in 1929

After years of non-competitive activities in which all must have prizes, is competition due a comeback in schools? Professor Wiliam says yes - if handled carefully.

"You've got to pitch it at just above their level.

"That's why the rivalry between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe was genuinely healthy - they were so close in ability, they pushed each other to do better. If it was me racing against one of them, I wouldn't compete, I'd give up."

Competition works best when pupils are in groups, he says, to encourage collaboration within the team and competition against their rivals.


Boy doing homework in kitchen with mother Are we hooked on scores?

A. B+. B-. C. F. What did you get?

"The first thing pupils do is look at their score. Do you know what the second thing is? Look at what the others got. Any feedback from the teacher is ignored," says Professor Wiliam. "As soon as you grade them, learning stops."

So in his experimental classroom, projects were returned with no grades, just feedback. In an art lesson, for instance, pupils made gecko sculptures and were given written feedback on how to improve on their creation. Only once it had been reworked did their gecko get graded.

"They didn't like it. Pupils are like drug addicts, they're addicted to grades and we've got them hooked. They expect grades. Parents expect grades."

So did the pupils eventually respond to this, and other methods tried by Professor Wiliam?

"I was genuinely surprised that we managed to have a noticeable impact on their achievement - and at how much more confident they were."

Gareth Malone will also be interviewed on BBC Two's Newsnight on Thursday 9 September at 2230 BST

Below is a selection of your comments.

I was both excited and frustrated by this. Excited because I know from experience that these strategies work: engaging everyone in the "teaching" aspect of the lesson is crucial. As a teaching head my class knew that questions would be focussed on individuals rather than a hands up approach. The teacher prepares questions appropriate to different abilities, and involves as many pupils as possible in different parts of a lesson. I also strongly agree that children need exercise and our school had many strategies to give physical opportunities e.g. prior to a lesson, at lunch with trained leaders, midway through a lesson. My frustration comes from knowing there are many successful schools who address these issues and I wonder if your program will demonstrate this. Also I am frustrated to see the choirmaster making lessons exciting for boys. GIRLS have the same needs to move about and be inspired. After years of monitoring year 6 SATS results at our school there were no sexual differences in attainment because the curriculum was made accessible for all. Please do not return to the 1960s where boys were taken out for cricket and girls sat by reading silently. My experience!

Ann Gibson, Much Wenlock, Shropshire

The no hands rule - that's been around for ages in primary. Simple rule - give them 30 seconds thinking time. Pick a child at random. Ask someone else what they think. PE in the morning - I would say most primary schools do a version of this. Wake Up, Shake Up or exercises to music. Taking it outside - again go to any primary school. You will see drama outside, role play outside - all related to the learning. Primary schools have a lot of expertise in how children learn.

Robyn Duckworth, York, Yorkshire

I am a 6th form student and have always been one of the quietest when coming to answering questions throughout my education. When picked on my answer 99% of time time was "unsure" or "don't know" and I have never lifted my hand. I have done really well in my exams and general education receiving mainly A's and B's at GCSE and A's at As level. These are purely suggestions which I believe will have no impact - the bottom line shows that it is down to the individual teachers.

Jake, Norfolk

Really good, common sense ideas implemented by an enthusiastic teacher. It's simple, isn't it, so why are we still debating this and not just getting on with it? The 'no marks' policy seems particularly important; shouldn't learning should be about just that? Instilling an attitude to accumulating knowledge; how to do it and why. It seems instead to have been distilled it into qualifying round for the rat race.

MH, Newcastle

Exercise before learning is a great idea but it does not mean having to break into a sweat. The most effective exercises would be neurologically based, so that the various systems of the body and brain would be primed for learning and attentiveness. They could be simple but fun and include stretching, balancing, focussing, coordination and other movement exercises - such as, for instance, a slow log roll on the floor, walking across a narrow beam, commando crawl etc. Not a new idea or rocket science really but based on neuroscience at least.

Paul Gismondi, Welwyn Garden City

Our head already has the idea of the outdoor classroom and the kids love it. I think it definitely improves concentration and also aids learning as so much can be done visually which aids a lot of children. In Oz & New Zealand they do so much more outside the class and kids tend to learn more as they are not just stuck in a room being talked at.

Sarah, Witham, Essex

I used to teach ICT, I would tell the class I didn't want hands up and I would choose who to answer at random. In the course of the lesson, everyone was picked, so all students were required to listen and answer. We had a very good piece of languages software that was multiple choice after the pupil had listened to the questions through headphones. It added points for correct answers and deducted for wrong ones. At the end of a lesson we could print out the results. The boys' competitive edge took over and they would consistently try to outdo each other and against the girls. Regrettably the Head of Languages was very "PC" and didn't believe in competitiveness, and dropped using the software. A great shame when there is a need for languages and where boys traditionally fail to achieve.

Chris, Honiton, Devon

There is a tried and tested method used by teachers for years called 'pose-pause-pounce-bounce'. The question is asked - no hands up - the teacher 'pounces' on a random pupils for their response - and then 'bounces' round four or more other pupils for their answers - before the class decides which answer was the more correct. To encourage less confident pupils the teacher may be very careful in selecting who makes the first response.

D Corner, Cumbernauld, Scotland

It is a great idea to start the day with exercises. I cycle to work and feel much more alive than when I drive. All schools should start the day with some physical exercises for 10-15 minutes, especially as children tend to get driven to school, either by family car or public transport.

Rob E, Totton, Hampshire

"Exercises before school or work were popular early last century" - and hung on into the second half in some places. At my boarding prep school in the 70s we all ran round the playing fields before breakfast - yes, all.

Mark, Bristol, UK

My daughter attended a small, rural primary school in Devon that did 'wake & shake' - 10 minutes of excercise every morning at the start of the school day. The benefits are at least twofold as physical activity stimulates mental activity and the children exercise each day helping to keep them fit and healthy. She now attends a high school in Worcestershire where physical exercise is sadly lacking with one period of PE one week and two the next. This is clearly insufficient as is demonstrated by the large number of overweight pupils and lower academic success. More exercise please!

Kate Welsh, Bewdley, Worcestershire

I used the "no hands up" approach throughout my teaching career but this would never stop students from putting up their hands every time I asked a question. As for no grades, with which I agree, I would point you to the book about Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, where the author does just this. It's a fascinating experiment, but he is berated by other members of staff. I fear that this would be the case in our Ofsted world of grades, attainment, targets etc.

Robert O'Hara, Ulverston

On the physical activity, it does not need to include a change of clothing - yes if you're going to be working up a real sweat, but no, if you're aiming at some light exercise to get you going. Kids don't change into gym kit if they have to run for a bus or when playing old-fashioned chasing games in the yard... or do they not do that any more?

Stefan, Hexham, UK

What really strikes me is how many of these ideas were in widespread use in Victorian times. It is very frustrating when people in education constantly use the Victorian era as a Terrible Time We Don't Want To Go Back To. The Victorians had some superb ideas about education (not least the idea that everyone should have some) and it is very refreshing to see some of them being revived, refreshed and being allowed to work.

Sean Lang, Cambridge

I couldn't agree more re grades. I am a university lecturer and find this problem persists beyond school. Students want grades, but a significant minority do not engage with feedback. Their grades often remain static, while those who do engage improve. At the same time, the National Student Survey often shows that students feel they do not receive enough feedback. We need ways of managing their expectations and understanding of what feedback is for and how to use it.

Dr Sue McPherson, Manchester, UK

Years ago when I was at school, I'd happily let someone else put their hand up. By having a small whiteboard (or slate!) immediately involves everyone - seems obvious really. Also PE, this has got to be extremely important, especially nowadays when our youngsters are so sedentary at home and a good percentage are fat. It's imperative to our future probably more so than high achieving in maths or English.

Lynn MacDonald, Southfleet, Kent

Military teaching already adopts many of these methods, we were taught by army regulars to give cadet lessons outside and involve some kind of physical activity in every aspect, even if it were an academic style lesson such as map and compass or tactics; additionally we were taught to always nominate for answers and try and involve everyone in questions, as this ensures everyone learns and feels they are progressing.

Mike, Kent

As a university lecturer I shall be taking some the ideas above on board and consider implementing some in to my teaching methods.

David, Norwich

I work in school sport, and there are numerous methods adopted by schools to provide physical activity first thing in the day or half way through a lesson, from Wake and Shake to Take 10 etc. If we really want a step change in the amount of PE and school sport offered then why doesn't the Govt make it a statutory requirement to do a minimum of 2 or 3 hrs a week? At the moment it is totally down to schools to put in as much as they want, and best fits their timetable. Head teachers who did not enjoy PE themselves don't put any emphasis on it and deliver less. This has to be wrong and unfair on all young people placed into those environments.

Dan, St Albans

When I was doing my CSE and O levels in the mid-80s it was girls who lagged behind. This all changed when GCSE and modules were introduced to help girls catch up. No doubt this had an effect - now girls are outperforming boys, and I find it shocking the focus on education is still female-centric. There are more female students at universities than men, yet still the initiatives are to help women only in education. Surely it should redress the balance and help boys again.

Simon, Liverpool

The boy/girl divide again. First, boys lag behind, and are being targeted at being taught differently. Were the girls? Is it possible, horrors, that if they girls were also taught more 'actively' that they would still be ahead of boys? The other point, I would have loved to do what boys were allowed to when I went to school. Perhaps the answer lies in treating each us as having different methods of learning and not just relating learning styles to just gender. I am a person, not a woman?

Sandra, Gloucestershire, UK

In 6th form now, most of my lessons don't have hands up, but neither do we have the teacher choosing a student. Whoever gets there first makes the first comment, and others will then discuss the answer. Sometimes I think it means we get less done, but each lesson becomes more valuable to us because we can get everyone else's point of view and then form our own answers from that.

Sarah, Dunstable

Fantastic idea to ban hands-up - should re rolled out nationwide at all levels of compulsory schooling and in A level courses. I am serving with the Royal Engineers and we are always taught in a similar fashion. It encourages the people being taught to listen to the whole of the lesson and also it shows them that you cant just hide in the background.

Owain Evans, Nottingham

Assessment is for Learning (AifL), group work, cooperative learning, collaborative learning, no hands up. These are all strategies that the good teacher here in Glasgow is using and have been for several years now. I am currently seconded as a Leader of Learning - one of 15 - within the council to embed and develop these strategies throughout the authorities schools. If this is felt as being "new" in Britain then perhaps people need to visit Glasgow to experience these initiatives in action.

Brian McKenna, Glasgow, Scotland

I'm a big fan of the no hands up rule. When I was in school our physics teacher used to throw a tennis ball at random pupils and if you caught the tennis ball you had to answer a question. It mean that everyone paid attention as those that didn't got a tennis ball in the face. Not sure how PC that would be today, but considering my class had many "naughty" pupils all paying attention I think it might be a good idea to bring back.

Stephen, Pontypool, Torfaen

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Education & Family stories


Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • Audi R8Need for speed

    Audi unveils its fastest production car ever - ahead of its Geneva debut


  • A robot holding a table legClick Watch

    The robots who build flat-pack furniture - teaching machines to work collaboratively

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.