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Classroom Anachronisms: Why Do They Keep Raising Their Hands?

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b2ap3_thumbnail_CKJWKL-WUAAwDaG.jpgThere are scenes in movies and on television that seem anachronistic.  How startling to see people smoking in a movie theater or a restaurant. My goodness, the size of the mobile phones used in the 1980s. What the heck is that thin blue paper the secretary is putting between the paper in the typewriter? (it’s carbon paper BTW [‘by the way’], and what’s a typewriter anyway.  One of the particular appeals of a TV show like Mad Men is that it is filled with these anachronistic details in which life in the 1960’s is held up to our modern sensibilities for appraisal. The way that men and women interact in the office, again, the smoking everywhere, drinking in the office (and before 11a.m. no less!).

Do you ever wonder what aspects of our current way of life will appear this way to future generations? There was an article in the paper recently about a slate chalkboard that sat behind the blackboard in the classroom in a school in Atlanta. On the chalkboard were interesting approaches to the teaching of mathematics, hand-drawn illustrations of children and aphorisms about how to live a good life as a citizen of our country.  It was at once fascinating and a little bit corny.   What aspects of our present school system will seem outdated, unusual, and even absurd to future generations?

I think it will be the image of students raising their hands to answer questions. Think about it, this is one of the most common images of the schoolhouse for over 100 years and it persists in our classrooms today.  

I can almost picture the conversation I'll have with my grandkids.  We will be watching a movie featuring a scene from school in the 20th century, Stand and Deliver, Fast Times at Ridgemont High or something like that:

Grandpa, why do the kids keep putting their hands up, usually the right hand…

That's what they did when they wanted to ask or answer a question.  You also did that when you wanted to go to the bathroom.

Could they use their left-hand?

I guess... most kids were right-handed.

What happens next?

Well,  the teacher would point at a kid, say his or her name, and the kid would answer the question.

How did the teacher know if the kid was going to give the right answer?

The teacher didn't know?

So what did the teacher do when a kid gave the wrong answer?

Well, teachers took classes called Questioning Techniques on how to handle when students gave wrong answers. They’d say to some other kid, “What do you think of Johnny’s answer? -- Can anyone  respond to Johnny’s response?”

Wasn't that embarrassing for the kid who gave the wrong answer?

I guess so, a little bit, but the class the teacher took was intended to help figure out a way to avoid that.  Not really sure it worked.

What about the kids who didn't raise their hands, or the kids who had their hands raised but didn't get pointed at? How did the teacher know what they were learning?

Um, I guess the teacher didn't.  But some teachers gave points to kids who frequently raised their hands.

So then, didn't a lot of kids just raise their hands a lot to get the points.

Um… I don't know… I never thought about that… You think they did that?

Grandpa, I'm sure kids did that.

What was the purpose of the kids raising their hands all the time? Was it for exercise? Did they have physical education classes back then or was it all combined with other classes that they took because of the hand raising?  Did their right shoulder muscles get all big  out of proportion because of all the hand raising?

Well, I know the hand raising was a form of formative assessment for the teacher but you're really making me think about this now.

It looks like school back then was a little bit like that show you like to watch, what's it called? With that guy who never seems to get older, Alex Trebek?

Are you talking about Jeopardy?

Yeah… School back in the day was like Jeopardy wasn’t it grandpa?


I'm proud to confirm that in my school,  most of the time, classes do not look like Jeopardy anymore.   Good teachers know that formative assessment is a powerful tool to gauge the effectiveness of the learning activity and also to get a sense of which students need a little more help or enrichment.   I don't mean to vilify using hand raising as part of lesson.  After all, we can't have kids walking out to use the bathroom willy-nilly without letting us know they're leaving.  But if this is the only technique a teacher uses for formative assessment, it's just not enough.  

With all the tech tools available to support formative assessment, why would we rely solely on “hand-raising”?  Teachers can use Padlet, Today’s Meet, Google Docs, and Twitter to ‘back channel” their classes with students responding to and asking questions throughout the lesson.  Poll Eveywhere, Survey Monkey, Google Forms and EasyPolls can be used for specific prompts or pivotal questions that teachers use to dipstick student understanding during the lesson.  Many teachers use Blendspace and Edmodo to build lesson webpages that contain resources, links and videos as well as embedded quizzes which provide data about the whole class and individual students.

There are many formative assessment techniques that require no technology.  Teachers use total participation techniques(TPT’s) like hold up cards, white boards, or just “thumbs up-sideways-down” to have students demonstrate their understanding.  How about giving students three plastic cups: green, yellow and red?  If the green cup is on top, the student gets it; red, the student doesn’t get it; yellow means “I’m not sure”.  There are a myriad other ways good teachers gauge the effectiveness of their work with students.  

There is no more dynamic and evolving field than education.  Our understanding about learning and the technology that supports it grows exponentially every day.  It is exciting to consider how different our classrooms will look in 10, 20 or 30 years.  I am eager to support these changes!  What do you think will be the “anachronisms” of our present day classrooms?


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Donald Gately Ed.D. is the principal at Jericho Middle School on Long Island. J.M.S. is a high performing middle school that has a comprehensive school-wide program to develop social emotional literacy; the school was named a New York State/National School to Watch in 2009, 2012 and 2015. Don was a middle school principal in Plainview-Old Bethpage, the assistant principal at Memorial Junior High School in Valley Stream and a teacher of English Language Arts in the New York City public schools. He is the former p resident of the Nassau County Middle Level Principals Association and active in a number of organizations that leverage support for innovative middle school practice. Don is a middle level leader with a singular passion and commitment to the intellectual and social/emotional development of adolescent learners. He was a BAMMY Award nominee for Middle School Principal of the Year in 2014 and 2015. Along with his wife Danielle (@dmgately) and an incredible PLN of committed Long Island educators Don cofounded EdCamp Long Island (@EdCampLI) in 2014.

  • Guest
    Lynn Marie Flynn Tuesday, 21 July 2015

    Your post is right on, Don. Teachers have to make changes and adjust to the call of the 21st century in order to engage students in learning. We need to be the classroom learning leaders for our students so they know we are learning right there with them and even learn from them--a real learning community.

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