To raise your hand is a critical act that deserves some reflection, even if at first it seems obvious. In a micro sense, every time students raise their hands, a milepost passes—an important one. To raise your hand is to mark the passage of an event worthy of action. You say, both to others and to yourself, “Hey, there was a question there, and I want to answer it.”
Consider a student in the third row of your classroom who raises his hand to answer a question. In fact, his hand is raised to answer during each of your first three questions. At least you think so. It’s hard to say for sure, as his hand has been up the whole time: while you were asking, while another student was answering the first question, and while you were asking a follow-up. All that time, his hand sways back and forth as if in a light breeze, languidly persisting in announcing his desire to answer. Surely you have seen this child, right? You’ve had him in your class many times. He’s a bit of an archetype.
You’re probably also familiar with what happens if you respond to his semaphore. Maybe he exhales audibly when you finally call on him. Maybe then he pauses. Perhaps the anguish of keeping his big idea inside has caused him to lose track of it entirely. “Um, I forgot what I was going to say,” he notes in exasperation. But maybe he remembers and begins “What I wanted to say was . . .” If so, his comment is likely to demonstrate the difference between a discussion, in which people listen to one another and collaborate to mutually develop ideas, and a series of disconnected comments strung together in a vaguely related sequence—a state of affairs that isn’t actually a discussion. The fact that it’s very hard to listen carefully to what others say while you have your own hand in the air means it’s likely that he wants to talk about something that was said several minutes ago or something unrelated to the conversation,
Socializing students that it’s fine to make comments that literally or figuratively begin with the words, “What I was going to say was . . .” is not only bad for your class but bad for students. Do you really want to tell students that when they get to college or enter the workplace, they should interact with a group by making comments that are of keen interest only to them, when everyone else has gone on to another topic?
Now consider this alternative: When you ask your first question, a student in the fourth row raises her hand to answer, but doesn’t get called on. As you call on another student to answer, she puts her hand down. Then, on your second question, her hand is up again. Again, someone else answers and her hand goes down, but on your third question she raises her hand again. Her comment, should you now call on her, is likely to be more productive than the first student’s, because each time she put her hand down, she acknowledged to herself that the opportunity to answer a specific question had passed—that her role was now to listen to what her peers said.
Just as important, her comment is likely to be valuable because she’s engaged differently in class. Each time she raised her hand anew, she acknowledged and considered a different question, which, in each case, she has decided to try to answer. Where the first student sees only one event—a period during class when you ask questions and he seeks to say something—the second student sees that there are multiple events. For the second student, the discussion is made up of specific questions rapidly evolving based on the comments offered by her classmates. She underscores the differentiation of questions within her mind by choosing to raise her hand selectively in response to each one independently. The process of putting her hand down to consider each new comment has caused her to engage more deeply. Mileposts have proliferated in her mind and given rise to a qualitatively different form of participation. For this student, a distinctive and engaging series of events, each one unique and interesting replaces the muddy, self-interested muddle the first student perceives.
Perceiving questions as different events teaches students to notice the differences between questions. In fact, a person who’s truly engaged in a discussion is often engaged because he or she attends to the differences among questions and becomes increasingly interested in those differences. A discussion, to that person, is not one event, but a series of fascinating events that come up in unpredictable order. To raise and lower your hand at each question is an acknowledgment that the questions are important and distinct; doing so also communicates respect for your peers because, as the first student demonstrated, you can’t really listen and have your hand up at the same time. A classroom where hands are up while someone is speaking is a classroom where people are saying, essentially, “What you’re saying doesn’t matter much to me; it won’t change what I want to say.”