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Hands down the best way to get all involved

Why we don't want hands up

In many ways, the concept of secondary education is a funny old thing. As an adult, in what walk of life would you ask humans to sit and concentrate hard, an hour at a time, on separate topics, five times a day, five days a week?! On repeat for five years…… If you ever shadow a student for a day on their timetable, you see how much demand is placed on students and it is little wonder, therefore, that some students can zone out from time to time.

Now, picture a scene. In any one of classes in a school, are, say,  six incredibly enthusiastic students. Whenever their teacher asks the class a question, they are always the first to put their hands and are often picked to answer. Fantastic students, with fantastic energy.

Cast your eye again around any one of these classes. There are fourteen more students who also, from time to time, volunteer answers, perhaps not always with that same energy as our six above, but they are keen.

And then, hiding in the shadows, are perhaps nine more. These are the students who might rarely volunteer. They might be shy, they might doubt their own answers. They might be students who do zone out from time to time. They might well be students who know that our six incredibly enthusiastic students will always volunteer when their teacher asks a question, so they feel comfortable in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be involved: they feel free, perhaps, to daydream their way through the lesson when it comes to question and answer time.

Now picture the same scene from the view of the teacher. In front of our teacher are 30 students in every lesson. In every lesson our teacher is tasked with imparting knowledge and then implementing a series of activities to ensure that all of our 30 students are involved, have their needs met, can work at different speeds from one another at times. Sometimes with a teaching assistant, but often without, our teacher needs to ensure that he or she knows which of the 30 students  may need a little help or nudge, who needs stretching further, who might have a medical or special educational need that has to be accommodated to support the student to access the learning. And then, repeat, often five times a day, 22 times a week, hopefully for way more than five years!

Of course, the art of teaching is that we do just this, day in, day out.

It is against the backdrop of scenes like these that we have to use pedagogies that allow us to engage all of the students. To check for the understanding of all, not just the most vocal or confident to answer. To ascertain where the different gaps in learning are so we can respond to them  - doing this in the most time efficient ways.

Students respond well to routine and knowing the expectations of them, and as such, at times, it is useful to have whole school approaches. During the Summer term and into the Autumn, we will be rolling out a series of whole school pedagogies, all intended to manage the complexities of teaching and learning described above.

The first of these is our no hands up, cold calling, that we began on Monday, following whole staff training the week before. Cold calling is when the teacher chooses any student to answer a question, rather than choosing from those who volunteer.

In the staff training, we considered ways to refine and maximise the  impact of this practice. For instance, we considered such questions as:

  • Do you ever build thinking time into your cold calling?
  • Do you use oral rehearsal time in your practice?
  • How do you explicitly cue in the class that you are about to move to cold calling?
  • How long do you allow students to respond?
  • How do you encourage students to say it again better?
  • What are the ways you target different types of questions at different types of students?
  • What do you when students say they don’t know?
  • What do you when misconceptions are evident?
  • How do you use cold calling when you are explaining something that requires a lot of active listening?
  • How do you tie in rewards with cold calling?


Cold-calling is a fairly widespread practice in school anyway, and so we have brought this in with no fanfare with the students. However, when all the adults in the school start acting as one, as with our successful whole school push on uniform, it cannot go unnoticed by the students. Initial feedback from students shows that they have seen something’s changed.

The educationalist Douglas Barnes said, many years ago, that “learning floats on a sea of talk.” We are finding that removing any reliance on volunteers for answering increases the range of students talking in our classrooms and helps staff see more quickly where misconceptions lie.

When the TSAT Director of English asked some of our students this week about the impact of cold calling, they were clear as to why this technique does this. They said:

  • “you have to be more alert for the questions”
  • “more people will know what they’re [the teachers] on about”
  • “you might get picked so you have to know what the answer is”
  • “randomly picking is best – everyone engages, otherwise some people just sit there and do nothing.”

Sometimes our young people say it best. With no hands up cold calling, this is exactly the impact we are all working to achieve.

Deborah Banks

Deputy Headteacher