Engaging the Disengaged, Number 6

Is Calling on Hands An Archaic Practice?

Many years ago, I can remember long lectures given by my teachers that were only interrupted by the calling on hands to see if anyone knew the correct answer to some question. I also remember being thankful that the same three or four students continually saved us by raising their hands while the rest of us continued to enjoy our daydreams. For today’s students, I dream of a world in which EVERY student gets to ponder rich questions, ask their own rich questions, and engage in conversation with their peers and teacher(s).

Collaborative Classrooms

The Common Core State Standards for Speaking and Listening state that students must “Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and express their own clearly and persuasively.”

In a Collaborative Classroom, teachers use structures such as “Think, Pair, Share,” “Think, Pair, Write,” and group brainstorming to facilitate conversation. These techniques can be used when too many or not enough hands are raised, or as a way to deepen the conversation, I say, every time we ask a rich question.

Fishing for Answers

Peter Brunn says we should avoid our old method of “fishing for answers” (The Lesson Planning Handbook, Brunn, p. 56, 2010). He refers to fishing for answers as posing a question with a correct answer in mind and then calling on hands until someone comes up with the correct answer. When we have a certain answer in mind, we should just give it and not waste time fishing. However, when we are discussing a rich text, there should be few questions with specific answers in mind. When a question or strategy is worth discussing, give think time and let all students both talk and listen by sharing with a partner.

Facilitation Techniques

The following are facilitation suggestions that encourage deep discussions:

  • Using wait-time
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Using cooperative structures
  • Encouraging use of student prompts to build on one another’s thinking:
    • I agree with ________ because…
    • I disagree with ________ because…
    • In addition to what ________ said, I think…

Deep Discussions

Often students direct their thoughts to the teacher and do not discuss with one another, sharing only their personal thoughts while missing opportunities to respond to one another’s thinking. “‘[T]urn and talk’ doesn’t mean merely turn and talk; it means building a conversation. Building a conversation means building on each other’s ideas.” (Opening Minds, Johnston, p. 103, 2012)Below is a list of teacher prompts that encourage students to think deeper and truly respond to one another:

  • Can you tell me more about your thinking?
  • What in the text made you think this?
  • What do others think about _____’s idea?
  • Can anyone add to ____’s thinking?
  • Do agree or disagree with ___’s idea? Why?
  • What questions would you like to ask _____?
  • Would anyone like to add to what _____ said?
  • What is an example of that?

It also helps students to listen to one another to have partners share their partners thinking, and not their own in a large group share, following a partner or small group discussion.Deeper discussion can be spurred by pointing out student’s diverse opinions without any judgment by the teacher. Prompts like the one below aid in this:

  • Tom thinks ______, whereas Tina thinks _____. Discuss in pairs whose thinking closely matches you own. Then we will share large group.

Avoid Praise

Another suggestion to encourage powerful collaboration is to avoid praise. If you are like me and a lover of children, this is very difficult to do. However, rewarding deep thinking with praise can inhibit discussion as much as negative feedback as it puts the teacher in the role of judge. Students feel inhibited to share their thoughts when they believe they will be judged by the adult in the room (Johnston). Maintaining a neutral or nonjudgmental stance “prevents the students from inferring what the teacher thinks is the ‘right answer.’ It also keeps the students focused on the ideas themselves, rather than the teacher’s judgment of the ideas” (Brunn, p. 89).

Listening In

As students are collaborating, circulate and listen in. Hold them accountable for staying on subject and show interest in their thinking. Jot notes to be used as assessments and in large group sharing. Students’ thinking in these conversations is a great assessment of their learning and comprehension.


Some benefits of collaboration in the classroom are:

  • Different perspectives are shared, honored, and negotiated and change as they discuss
  • A focus on making meaning
  • Students take responsibility for their own learning
  • Equal power is shared between both teacher and students; not the typical learning situation of expert to novice
  • Students feel their voices matter so they contribute and pay attention

Always remember to ask rich questions and allow students to discuss before, during, and after reading or lecturing.

Research that Supports Collaboration

Martin Nystrand and his colleagues found that students in dialogic classrooms

[R]ecalled their readings better, understood them in more depth, and responded more fully to aesthetic elements of literature than did students in more typical, monologically organized classes. They also found that dialogic classrooms tended to reduce achievement differences across race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and school track.
-Johnston, p. 53

The Center for English Learning and Achievement found, in schools that were “beating the odds”

[That] the content and skills of English are taught as social activity, with depth and complexity of understanding and proficiency with conventions growing from collaborative discourse.
-Beating the Odds: Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well, Judith A. Langer

And, a recent study reported in Science Daily (2008) found that those who learn to collaborate effectively in school make more money than others. “Collaboration IQ” is a stronger predictor of financial success than standardized test scores (Daniels, Hyde, and Zemelman, Best Practice, 2012).

My challenge to you, my readers: Call on hands less, and turn and talk every chance you get.

To see examples of this type of facilitation, check out the following videos:

Writing Instruction

Reading Comprehension