An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

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Microeconomic life lessons: Is handraising a race to the bottom?

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Imagine a race where everyone is trying to lose. Races to the bottom are a bit more complex than this scenario but the outcome is the same: instead of competition yielding the best outcomes, competition clamors around second-rate outcomes. Races to the bottom occur when the perception is that sub-par outcomes can yield benefits or when the voices of those who experience costs are left out of decision-making.

Most economics and political science textbooks give examples from competition surrounding international workers rights or environmental laws. When one country eliminates or decreases the penalties for violations of these laws, a competition ensues between countries to do the same, because business flows to countries with less regulations, transaction costs, and taxes. This leads to a situation where countries are vying to have less protections for the environment and their workers – they are racing to the bottom.

There are many school-based examples of races to the bottom I could talk about in this post (No Child Left Behind, Teach for America, etc). I’m going to focus on handraising because I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.

A few days ago, I was sitting in a class about policies and practices of English language learners. We were having a discussion about equitable participation in class. My instructor asked “what is the definition of engagement you use in your classroom?”. One of my colleagues had a brilliant (and slightly terrifying) answer. She said: “Engagement is when students care about the direction and process of their own learning“. I believe her definition because I’m a constructivist: I think that children construct their own knowledge when they encounter experiences that intrigue and challenge them. My colleague’s idea is brilliant and terrifying because of the standards many of us use to measure engagement and learning in our classrooms. We ask questions and look for raised hands. I’ve observed many elementary classrooms over the past few months. Teachers are nervous when no one raises their hand to answer questions and satisfied when students do. I’m not entirely sure how raised hands and spoken answers correlate to learning. Did the student already know the answer? Does it help students to listen to the answers of their peers when the teacher determines truth? It seems like there is a dual race to the bottom happening. Many teachers settle for raised hands at the expense of allowing learning processes to occur that are less teacher-controlled and have less “obvious” evidence of outcomes. Students create norms and power structures of their own. Some try to have the right answer to please the teacher. Many assign “smart” and “dumb” labels based on their peers’ handraising. They see handraising as part of the game of school rather than part of their learning process.

I’m not saying we should eliminate all questioning and handraising from our classrooms. Of course there are provocative questions, student-centered discussion formats, and other tools of our trade that resemble traditional handraising but have different outcomes.

Do you think handraising is a race to the bottom? How do you define engagement in your classroom?



Written by TeacherC

28 February 2009 at 1:41 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] “How do you define engagement in your classroom?”  A provocative question and post courtesy of Educatorblog who asks Is handraising a race to the bottom? […]

  2. Perhaps you should change the nature of what is evaluated by hand raising. Like clickers and personal student whiteboards, hand raising can, with careful instruction, be used to gauge understanding. Use hand-raising to take classroom polls. If you’re so certain students are stigmatized by being asked to respond based on volunteerism, then reassure students they won’t be asked to respond.

    You say: “Teachers are nervous when no one raises their hand to answer questions…”

    Are you certain of that? Or are you projecting some concerns? A very good teacher will allow students time to respond – and it often takes a few more moments than new teachers find comfortable. Please understand that’s not a criticism of you, but rather an offering of learned perspective. Yes, I thought the same – that teachers got nervous when no one answered. After years of practice, I found out it was simply a technique of patience and differentiation.


    6 March 2009 at 9:22 pm

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Here are my ideas on handraising in my classroom. I try to limit the amount of “test questions” I use – ones where students know I have a “right” answer in mind and are waiting for someone to say the right thing. I try to use authentic questions whenever possible – ones that may not have a “right” answer but require evidence from texts/lecture/personal experiences to answer. Then, I try to help students get into conversations where most comments are directed at each-other. Over the year I give them strategies for asking appropriate follow-up questions, evaluating evidence, and other conversational strategies.

      Wait time is one of my favorite strategies in the classroom. I try to not get caught up in my lesson, how much time I (don’t) have, and other professional stressers so I can give students time to answer. I also go for nonverbal responses – thumbs up/middle/down, “raise your hand if you agree with that evidence…keep it raised if you are willing to talk about it”, etc. I love the think-pair-share model too.

      My classroom is learning lab for students and I – I’m learning how to help them drive the conversations in our class. Like you’ve said, it definitely takes trust and patience.


      6 March 2009 at 9:31 pm

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