Hands down

One little girl was hunched over trying to maintain a cross-legged seated position while holding up her arm with the other, the effort was exhausting but the answer to her question would be worth the effort for her.

The children were seated in a semi-circle around an external presenter an arrangement that took a great deal of organisation in itself. It was the annual mini-beast incursion for Grade 1s; a show-and-tell of invertebrates to help consolidate their learning.

At the beginning of the session they were given strict instructions to stay quiet so as not to scare the animals and to save their questions until the end of the session so that they had time to meet all the creatures in tanks and cages in front of them. They were prompted to pretend to ‘zip’ closed their lips and ‘switch on’ their ‘hearing ears’.

But that didn’t stop several of the children from attempting to ask questions, their expressions reflecting the urgency of their need for explanations and followed by intense disappointment at being asked to put their hands down. Their teacher would bend down beside some of the more insistent questioners and whisper quietly in their ears that they could not have their question answered until the end so they must lower their hands.

The presenter was trained in the art of performing for children; she projected her speech clearly and loudly although a little too fast, as though pressed for time. She maintained perfect eye contact with the children with a permanent wide friendly smile and memorized the more vocal children’s names very quickly to get their attention. She echoed key phrases and words and got the children to join in with the easy answers that she had prepped them for.

At the end of the day, when I went to collect Damian, several children who have taken a liking to me (over the course of the last year or so) ran straight up to me and began telling me all about the amazing animals they had seen at the incursion. I laughed and said to them “Have you forgotten that I was there!?” but I should have said nothing and ‘oohed and aahed’ instead because their faces looked a little disappointed that they were unable to dazzle me with their stories.

Although the incursion was a roaring success in terms of a visual and tactile experience, the learning approach was completely directed. They had gotten to touch many of the animals in turn, each child had a carefully posed for a photo with an animal chosen by the presenter and they had learnt some common words and facts about the animals but at the end of the session but there had been no time for questions or comments, not even one.

All those questions and comments remained unasked and unsaid. How did those children feel about that? Would their questions have extended their learning? Had they learned something that day about asking questions generally (they were of lowest priority in this case). Or had they completely forgotten about them?

Damian was one of the children with lots of questions; clearly he takes after me. Unfortunately, I have developed a touch of shame about asking questions over time because I am a compulsive asker and answerer of questions. There have been many times I have sat upon my hands during workshops to try to prevent myself from taking up more than my fair share of the facilitator’s time. Precious time, time that has been crafted to the minute to impart all the information necessary to tick all the boxes.

So I pose a couple of questions to you: How balanced should we be between ‘hands down’ approaches to teaching and ‘hands up’ approaches to teaching? Does asking questions and commenting take up too much of valuable teaching time or are we missing opportunities for learning that are just as valuable?