Hands Up!

What are we teaching out kids when we teach them to raise their hands?

When I give tours to groups at the museum, I try to engage visitors as much as possible. I ask questions and invite visitors to think and then call out answers or their opinions. Lately I have recognized a trend in the way people respond, picture the following: I stand in front of a mixed group of visitors on a Saturday afternoon. There are about 15 people on this tour, about the history of the 18th century building where I work. There are adults alone, in pairs and a few families with school aged children. I mention a trial that occurred in 1692 in Salem and ask if anyone has any idea what these trials were. A middle school girl raises her hand to answer, but before I can call on her, a middle age man has already called out “witch trials!”

Even when I encourage visitors to call out their answers at the start of the tour, kids will still raise their hands. This is a testament to the classroom management skills of their teachers, but are we teaching kids about the real world when we rigidly enforce hand raising?

I myself, was recently in a brain storming staff meeting. I casually raised my hand, with the intention of being acknowledged by the moderator. After about a minute, while others were calling out ideas, a colleague leaned towards me and whispered “you should just yell it out, no one’s gonna see that hand.” I hadn’t even realized what I was doing, that I had defaulted to raising my hand.

I started thinking, “what are we teaching kids when we teach them to raise their hands?”

As a former classroom teacher, I know that in a traditional classroom setting hand raising is integral. It maintains order and can allow the teacher to prevent one or two students from dominating the conversation. However, in real life that is not often how it works. In real life students will face situations where they are expected to actively contribute ideas, rather than passively wait to be called on.

In addition to the social implications of hand raising, I came across this article suggesting that when students are banned from raising their hands, they in fact learn better. This article explains that in a small test case students were not allowed to raise their hands, rather they were instructed to write down their answers to questions the teacher asked. In this way, every student is engaged with the material and recording an answer. In this case students, “ learned twice as quickly”

Is hand raising useless?

I am not saying that hand raising should be banned in the classroom, but I believe that there is a time and a place for the raised hand. I think students should be explicitly taught about these “times and places”, learning the difference between a question and answer format in class and a more free form discussion. This way, when students find themselves in a real life situation (like where I found myself in the brainstorming meeting!) they might know the best way to participate.

In the 21st century we have the tools to teach these skills. An internet platform for learning can create a system where all students are required to check in and answer, digitally holding them responsible. If every student’s response is recorded in a “chat room” or message board style, (as homework in many cases) it won’t matter who called out and got their answer in first, or even who the teacher chose to call on.

I also believe that if adults participated more actively in the learning community, through formal and informal channels, including Internet based learning, they might remember that different situations require different behavior when it comes to contributing ideas and participating in a discussion.


Alexa has a Bachelor’s degree in history from Boston University and Master of Arts in Teaching from Simmons College. After teaching high school history at a public charter school for two years she now works in Museum Education. When she is not teaching the public about the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution she is doing her best to read as much as possible, eat as much as possible and sleep as much as possible.

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