Hand Raising: Is It Obsolete?

hands raised in class against blackboard

By Cindy Schwartz, co-founder and executive director of secondary education

Let’s explore the art of questioning and whether or not the age-old practice of students asking questions, by raising their hands, has become obsolete?

Exploring this question led me to another more existential one – are students even asking questions? 

greek philosopher socrates statue

Socrates, the 5th century BCE Greek philosopher, considered the father of Western philosophy, believed that real and true learning occurs when one questions. Socrates modeled this philosophy as a teacher by repeatedly asking his students questions until they arrived at their own understanding of whatever topic he was teaching them that day. Accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by encouraging this questioning, Socrates was put on trial and forced to choose between exile or death for his ‘crime’. Socrates chose to drink poisonous hemlock and die while in the company of friends rather than leave his beloved Greece. Encouraging students to question was not up for negotiation. 

As a Socratic instructor myself, I employ various questioning strategies like ‘closed’ and ‘open’ questions to help my students reach the truth. ‘Closed’ questions are the straightforward ones that require a definitive, factual, often memorized, answer, however, it is the ‘open’ question that I, and my students, like the best. For example, if I ask a ‘closed’ question like, “When was WWI fought”, the answer would be, “between the years 1914 and 1918”. But, if I ask an ‘open’ question like, ‘Why are wars fought? or ‘Are human beings naturally peaceful or warlike?” then that ‘opens’ up my classroom for far more dialogue, debate, and introspective thinking. Those ‘open’ questions are the ones that lead to our most prized and memorable conversations with students. But, here’s what I’ve noticed lately – teachers appear to be doing all the work and many students are simply not asking any questions of their own. Why is that?

A March, 2009 article in Edutopia entitled, ‘The Right Way to Ask Questions in the Classroom” says that the reason students don’t ask questions is simple – it’s about classroom environment. Writer Ben Johnson says, “if we look at the dynamics of any classroom, it doesn’t take more than a week for students to figure out who is smart, who is not, and who doesn’t care. What is worse, is studies show that  after 4th grade, students know how they are perceived and play their roles accordingly.”

So, this reminds us about how important it is for the teacher to be mindful of this inner dynamic of their classroom and to address it head on. 

If your students seem reluctant, nervous or unwilling to ask questions, here are some doable tips that you could try…I have tried them all with great success…

How to encourage your students to ask questions

child, i am a student, book

Ask questions yourself!

Model questioning by using a multitude of ‘open’ ended questions, regardless of subject matter, to engage students. Make your questions relevant to their world.

Utilize the tried and true

For each of your lessons, make sure to ask the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Instill this practice in your students to make them critical thinkers.

Have debates!

Regardless of your subject matter, there is always something to debate! My students thrived in debates. As the teacher, you need to set parameters. You should be the moderator clarifying arguments from either side if necessary and insisting on order and respect when needed. Agree on the rules of debate. Ask students to say, “I beg to differ” when they are debating. Debaters may be passionate at times, but that is a good thing. Debates will lead to students asking questions during the debates of each other. 

How great will that be! 

Read Socrates with your students

Teach them about the person who encouraged questioning and ultimately died for it. Ask them if they would be willing to die for the same cause?

Teach them about others who have questioned the status quo

Reading about people who have ‘QUESTIONED’ will encourage them to do so as well. And this isn’t limited to just history. Think about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, the woman scientist Marie Curie, or the black woman mathematicians at NASA, like Katherine Johnson, who helped us get to the moon. Who knows? You could inspire a future famous questioner!

Cultivate a safe space for asking questions

Create a safe, non-judgemental environment where students feel comfortable asking questions. How do we do that? Be comfortable with the silence that may follow a question, give students time to think and process, don’t rush in with an answer.  When students respond, thank them for their response. Gratitude goes a long way!

Positive affirmations when they ask questions

Thank students for asking questions when they do. Compliment them on their questions. Thank them for their participation and thank them again as they leave your class at the end of the day. The student who asked a question for the first time will never forget how accepting and supportive you were.

Finally, use index cards for questions

Some students are just too shy or insecure to ask a question. Have them place their questions on index cards after class anonymously and get to that question tomorrow!

Why some students don’t ask questions or raise their hand

girl, shy, hand

A 2014 article in The Cut raised the issue of how socio-economic status plays into the questioning game for students. Sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco visited 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in Indiana and found that “middle class parents tell their children to reach out to the teacher and ask questions” while “working class parents see asking for help as disrespectful to teachers, so they teach their children to work out problems themselves.” Working class parents tended to remember that when they were children, asking teachers questions often caused teachers to yell. McCrory-Calarco’s study further noted that, “the child who raises their hand a lot is going to get a lot more attention.” That is not a surprise.

And although this study is certainly not the definitive study on the connection between socio-economic status and questioning in the classroom, it certainly gives us food for thought as teachers. Perhaps we should be more mindful of the importance of cultural practices and beliefs at home that influence how our students behave in the classroom. 

We hope that today’s podcast has provided you with some doable tips on how to encourage your students to ask more questions in the classroom. Let us know in the comments section if any of these tips work for you or if you have any suggestions on what you have done to encourage kids to question more.

This blog post has been adapted from this week’s Attentive Teaching podcast, available on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and other major podcast platforms.

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