Problem 1:  Abdullahi* repeatedly calls out during discussions: he’s not being rude intentionally and much of what he says is relevant and interesting.  His interjections claim a huge share of the class’s time however, interrupting peers, tying up teachers’ attention and getting him into trouble.

Problem 2:  I have encountered the following student responses in the middle of discussions:

  • A student calls out

A student raises their hand and:

  • Asks “Can I go to the toilet?”
  • Begins “I agree with what she said…” and goes on to repeat the point.
  • Returns to a tangential point made some time ago.
  • On being invited to respond, a student replies: “I didn’t hear what she said.”

I use debate and discussion extensively, so I must try to ensure they run effectively and time is used well.  I wrote recently about employing scaffolding, probing questions and lollipop sticks to ensure everyone in my (mixed-ability) classes is challenged and no one is left behind.  Maintaining students’ attention and participation is tricky however, and responses like those above make it harder, undermining discussion: some students become distracted while others grow impatient.

One aid is non-verbal  or ‘seat’ signals; David Didau’s mention of one, ‘clicking,’ in his account of a visit to King Solomon’s Academy, aroused curiosity, confusion and a degree of suspicion.  For the interested and the sceptical alike, I’ve tried to explain how and why my colleagues and I use them.

What seat signals work?

It takes so little time to teach them, that I think the answer is – whatever you want – subject to common sense rules as to their number and simplicity.  This week, for example, I taught my new form the ‘I can’t hear you’ signal in about sixty seconds, and the next day a couple of students used it unprompted (allowing me to reinforce it).   Here are some that my colleagues and I have adopted:

Clicking – I agree, sympathise, approve: can provide affirmation and encouragement

Crossed fingers held up – I can’t hear: students are responsible for listening.

Shaking hands, palms outstretched – I disagree: a colleague introduced this – I’m not a massive fan (the motion is a little distracting and it’s less affirming) but it’s a helpful opposite to clicking.

Pointing at Student X – I want to respond to what X has said: helps teachers keep track of and orchestrate discussions with several simultaneous threads or ideas.

KIPP and Teach Like a Champion suggest many more I’ve never adopted – such as those for needing a pencil, a tissue or the toilet.

What do they look like?

The video below is not great quality, but it offers a brief demonstration of a couple of signals in use.

Why seat signals?

It’s hard to manage discussions effectively.  Teachers must keep track of academic goals, emerging misconceptions, unanswered questions, students who have and have not spoken and the class’s and individuals’ emotional temperature, while maintaining students’ attention and interest.  Non-verbal signals help keep everyone involved, allowing more students to participate at once and ensuring they are responsible for listening.  So they enable teachers to make decisions without stopping the class, avoiding lines like this: “So, are you going to speak in favour of, or against what Aliya just said?  Oh, you didn’t hear it.”  As to some of the criticisms raised:

Isn’t it distracting?  Surprisingly little once you’re used to it; much less so than calling out or off-topic discussions.

Doesn’t it waste time?  Five minutes invested in teaching them saves scores of unproductive conversations during the year.  Once taught, they are used during discussions, so there is no opportunity cost.

Why not let students clap?  No one is stopping students from clapping.  But, in my experience, people rarely stop and clap in small group discussions.  Clicks are for agreement, applause is for a speech, a performance or a brilliant point.

Doesn’t it give a false impression of student understanding?  This is not a check for student understanding.  It can provide useful information (if students click for a false assertion, for example), but it doesn’t replace a hinge question or something similar to check what everyone has understood.

Won’t this prepare students poorly for the future?  Students code-switch.  At school, many students are asked to speak and write in registers (or languages) which differ from those they use at home.  We expect them to remember they can shout for the ball in games, but not for attention in lessons.  Students presumably adapt to not having to ask to go to the toilet in their workplace; anyone who lives abroad or is exposed to an unfamiliar culture similarly learns the meaning of gestures and signals differs by context.

Doesn’t this promote conformity?  This is just a small element of discussions: we prize debate, disagreement, independence and originality of thought; our students seem unafraid to articulate controversial opinions in defiance of their peers.  Smooth discussions and avoiding interruptions make this possible.  (Moreover, at GFS, signals emerged organically: no one mandated their use, individuals introduced them and they spread because they worked for teachers and students alike).

In conclusion

I hope this clarifies a solution to Problem 2, but what about Abdullahi?  Clicking transformed discussions for him.  What he wanted, it seemed, was to make his opinion known; what he lacked was patience.  Clicking meant he could participate and be heard without disrupting discussions; when he had a novel point, he was happier to wait (sometimes clicking) with his hand up.  Class discussions ran better, Abdullahi’s relationship with his teachers improved.

* Not his real name.

David Didau’s visit to KSA.
Debra Kidd’s thoughts.

Post script: The view from India

Last year, I corresponded with Nihar Bawa, a Teach for India fellow – this may offer an interesting comparison.  Her mentor mentioned how well she ran her classroom, and her signals.  She explained:

We have 6 hand gestures in class for question, answer, problem, connection, comment and one indicating that the student has finished his/her work. The reason I came up with these was to have some control over kids sharing relevant things at the relevant time. Often when I would ask a question, some kids would raise their hand to share a connection or just state a comment, or ask a problem. I wanted a way to select who share what, and to make sure that once I have asked a question, I first address the problems before asking the students to speak the answer. The gesture system proved to be immensely helpful as not only could I choose which kid shares what without hurting their feelings or discouraging them, but also it gave me a quick estimate of what is going on in their heads, helping me tailor my instruction accordingly. So if e.g. I am teaching a difficult vocabulary word, I would select the kids who have a connection to share first (over comments) as that would help others comprehend the meaning as well. I had to come up with a gesture for work completion because I just found it really annoying to hear the students say out loud ‘Finished!’ the moment they finished the sums on the board or the worksheet , also I felt that it discouraged the kids who generally  needed more time to complete their work.”

She sent this video, adding:

This video is about our grammar class (led by students), where they are figuring out how to use adjectives , adverbs, nouns and verbs correctly in a sentence. One person shares a sentence using lets say the adjective form of the word, then as a class they critically evaluate whether the sentence is correct or not and suggest ways to correct it. The leader (Wali) can be seen reading the hand gestures of classmates and accordingly address a problem/question.