100% of hands up – worth it?

“If all the students know the answer, the question was too simple.”

One of the best things about working at Michaela is the willingness and ability of pupils – all pupils, in every class – to answer questions.  It’s not rare to see 100% of hands in the air at least a dozen times a lesson.  Pupils love to be picked, and love to show off their knowledge, and regularly beam with pride at a good answer.

There is a lovely photo, which gets regularly tweeted, of a row of pupils in a Michaela Science lesson. Every pupil has his or her hand up in the air. Of course, any tweet about Michaela has a tendency to polarise opinion (normally those who have visited vs. those who haven’t), and last night this picture attracted the response: “If all the students know the answer, the question was too simple.”

This statement presupposes that there is little or no value in recalling information that is widely known. It also assumes that simple information is not worth embedding. Finally, it suggests that if all pupils are capable of answering the question correctly, there was no point in asking the question.

If the content of your lessons is valuable, there will always be value in checking that your pupils have mastered the content.  You may ask the same question fifty times over the course of a school year, and the answer will become more and more automatic each time a pupil answers it. Spaced repetition is key for recall; recall is the bedrock of memorisation; long-term memorisation frees up working memory and allows pupils to make better use of what they know. I know that the language I teach in my French lessons is language that pupils will use for the rest of their language-learning careers, and therefore I have no qualms about checking, in most lessons, that pupils know how to say ‘it’s’ and ‘because’ and ‘I love to do my homeworks while listening to music’. Memory is also fickle – what one pupil remembers every time might escape another. 100% hands up is the only acceptable response to a question. I refuse to stop asking the question just because everybody appears to know it; if it’s a good question, it is worth answering repeatedly. This creates confidence and demonstrates mastery.

Another reason that 100% of hands up is a desirable thing is that it demonstrates how well pupils have listened to and taken on board the information you present.  When you jettison discovery learning in favour of just telling them the things they need to know, you are faced with a room of pupils who have all of the information they need to answer a question, and in which no pupil is left out as a result of inability to source that information. If they don’t know the answer, it is more likely than not that they just weren’t listening. You can do a lot with that.

The only reason I can think of that you wouldn’t ask an important or valuable question during your lesson is if you believe there is an opportunity cost in doing so.  I know that I certainly used to believe that asking a question that some pupils might have been able to guess the answer to, or one that some but not all of the class would remember, was a better use of time than reinforcing knowledge that they had already acquired and were on the way to mastering.  Time was short, and there was content to teach. But if the content you’re teaching is not fundamental to the understanding and mastery of your subject, then it’s not as valuable as teaching and repeating and reinforcing and going over and practising and mastering the stuff that is important.  I don’t spend entire lessons asking how to say ‘it’s’, but I will ask it twenty or thirty times a term; it’s a crucial and not-to-be-forgotten element of my subject. And yes, I may not spend the same amount of time asking how to say ‘slippers’, but if I considered it crucial to the mastery of French then I would.

I used to agonise over the kids who never put their hands up; I realised at the beginning of this year that, far from being unable to recall it, they simply had not been given sufficient opportunities to recycle, reuse and rehearse it. Since asking the same questions of the same valuable content over and over again, all pupils are able to recall it. And the ones who got it first time? They’re using it and working towards complete mastery.

Choose your content, rehearse it, recycle it, and ask the same valuable questions until you get 100% of hands up 100% of the time. To do otherwise is to leave pupils behind, and to deny the others mastery of what you’re teaching them.