Miraz Triggs found that random name generation as a way of choosing who would answer questions focused students’ attention and led to a higher level of participation

How many teachers, parents, students even, subscribe to the view that a quiet classroom is an effective classroom? For many years this has been a commonly held view that has permeated thinking in English schools (Westgate and Hughes, 1997). More recent thinking, however, holds that talk in the classroom is indeed a powerful tool to learning (Alexander, 2006), a view that I strongly support. It is my belief that conversations between students, sometimes supported or facilitated by teachers, can lead to significant gains in learning. I would like to share with readers a technique that I tried with my Year 8 students at Barnwell School in Stevenage that dramatically improved the quality of student-student dialogue in my classroom.

The drawbacks of ‘no hands’

The strategy that I used builds on the ‘no-hands’ approach; an assessment for learning idea that will be familiar to most teachers through National Strategy materials. For the uninitiated, the no-hands approach promotes classroom talk because teachers select students to make verbal contributions without letting the students volunteer themselves. This is supposed to ensure that everyone participates fully in the discussion that precedes the students’ feedback. I believe, however, that there is a key flaw in traditional no-hands approaches concerning the extent to which students feel that they need to participate actively in discussion. This is a subtle point but anyone who has ever practised no-hands needs to ask themselves if they do indeed give all students an equal chance of answering questions or if, in fact, there are certain members of the class who get to answer more or less frequently than the others. Here are three examples of where this has happened in my own classroom. Mark is a very quiet and well-behaved student but is essentially very passive in class. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and takes Ritalin to control its symptoms. He never puts his hand up to ask or answer any questions but he does respond if asked. He speaks very quietly and slowly with something of a monotone to his voice but the substance of what he says is very interesting, showing that he has much to contribute to lessons. In the no-hands approach Mark doesn’t get asked very many questions because there is considerable effort needed to hear and understand what Mark is trying to say, and the rest of the class often get restless when he is talking. Tony is entirely the opposite of Mark. He is very confident and articulate, although what he says is not always accurate or thoughtful. Tony likes to contribute at every opportunity and if he feels that he is not getting his turn then he will start to butt in or sometimes engage in quite disruptive behaviour. Tony tends to get asked more questions than the other students because if he doesn’t get to make a public contribution very regularly then he becomes quite difficult to handle in class. Sarah has lots of interesting ideas to contribute but is very shy and doesn’t like to speak in class. She participates willingly with her classmates but when it comes to choosing someone to give an answer she avoids eye contact. If she is chosen then she presents herself reasonably confidently although sometimes relies on the rest of her group to help her out. Sarah tends to answer less questions than the rest of the class because she is skilled in avoiding being chosen.

A more impartial system

I realised that what was needed was a way of organising class discussion and questioning that removed any chance of anyone thinking they could influence the selection of students for answering questions. A simple way of achieving this was to use an ICT application that generated students’ names and displayed them at random. Specifically, this was a set of slides looping continuously in PowerPoint. There is one slide with each student’s name on it and these are set to circulate so fast that it is essentially a random slide or student who is selected. The routine is known as the Randometer. There are other random name selectors designed for use by teachers in this way, some of them using ICT, some of them not. One of the advantages of the Randometer is that either the teacher or the student in question can personalise the slides by adding pictures or other inserts that serve to give a fun element to the Randometer experience. A further potential benefit of the random name generation process is that it helps remove the ‘boffin’ culture – it stops the students who usually answer questions from being labelled as swots or boffins. Consider a student who always put his/her hand up to answer a question. This student in some classrooms in some schools would be labelled as a boffin and would possibly feel awkward about answering questions for fear of teasing. When chosen by a fair and impartial system, this student is not trying to impress or please teacher any more than any other student and is therefore free to give his/her answer without any fear of negative comments from the other students. Interestingly, this also works for the students who don’t often put their hands up to answer questions. Consider the student who likes to be cool in class and therefore doesn’t want to be seen to be willingly following a teacher’s requests. If chosen by the Randometer this student is freed from the need to appear cool. After all, he/she didn’t choose to answer the question, but was chosen at random. It is likely that these students like the random name system because it allows them to show their potential without appearing to be too uncool. I decided to try out the Randometer on a class of Year 8 students that I taught three times a week for science. They were an enthusiastic but somewhat unruly bunch who I thought could benefit from some direction and focus to their talk! I didn’t at first tell the students what the Randometer was about. I set them a homework task of preparing a personal slide with their name and some images of things that they liked and then collected these up electronically and compiled them into a Randometer slide-show. I used the Randometer with this class on a regular basis over the next six months, taking me up to the end of the school year. We most often used it as a starter discussion activity once or twice a week on average. I collected data in three different ways, firstly noting students’ initial reactions, then collecting observations about how talk in the classroom had changed. I also asked the students to interview each other, to record their classmates’ feelings about the Randometer and its perceived usefulness as a tool to learning. Initial student reactions upon seeing the Randometer slides were ones of amusement and interest. The students showed a lot of pride in their own slides and were keen for their names to come up. There was a cheer every time the Randometer stopped on a particular person and their contribution was eagerly awaited. In terms of initial reaction, the students were very positive about the Randometer. It was interesting also to note that when the student selected came to give their answer, they were afforded a quiet and attentive audience, which up until now had been quite difficult to secure with this lively class. The students answering the questions seemed to appreciate this quiet expectation and seemed able to compose themselves and give a thoughtful answer. The most important part of this trial was to determine the effect the Randometer had on the quality of talk in the classroom. The first point of note was that the students were much more focused on the questions that were being asked of them. In the past they had started their discussions without much recourse to what was actually being asked of them, therefore holding conversations which only skirted around the topics in question. They now sought clarification of what was being asked before the discussion commenced and were very careful to find out specifically how they would be required to demonstrate their learning. Upon starting their dialogue it was clear that they were far more focused on the question than prior to the use of the Randometer and there was a far greater degree of participation around the class. Students who previously had been reluctant to participate in the talk were now joining in if not enthusiastically then at least conscientiously. I think that the most interesting data collected during this enquiry was the videoed interviews that the students made of each other. This is partly due to the fact that it addresses one criticism levelled at the Randometer; that it puts students under stress when they are chosen or waiting to be chosen. I have illustrated some of the key points with excerpts of the students’ interviews. The comments from the students interviewed indicate overwhelmingly that they see the Randometer as a unanimously positive experience: ‘It’s a fun way to pick people – it’s even’ – Robert ‘It’s funny cos you don’t know who’s going to get picked’ – Helen Several of the students comment on the aspect of fairness. They see the Randometer as a way of making sure that everyone gets a turn: ‘Instead of people moaning when they get chosen because they don’t want to it’s fair because everyone gets a turn’ – Paul ‘It’s a fair way of getting chosen cos it stops people saying “aah you’re the teacher’s pet”when you get chosen’ – Matt ‘… its fair play and everyone has an equal chance to get chosen and I like to see what people like’ –Becca They also see it as a hugely fun experience due to the personalisation of the slides: ‘It’s good because we can swap and change our pictures every week’ – Emma It is easy to see how the importance of talk can be overlooked in a classroom as it requires supportive whole-school practices and a high level of teacher skill to be performed effectively. Having tried the Randometer on a class of lively 13-year-olds, I am now convinced that it is one of the quickest and easiest ways of maximising the learning value of talk in the classroom. I have shared this strategy with many colleagues at my school and all have reported favourably that the quality of talk has indeed been improved. I am convinced that learning by talking is an essential part of experiential learning and I am delighted that the Year 8 students at Barnwell School share my views. ‘I think it’s a really cool idea because it gets everyone to answer questions’ – James

Miraz Triggs is a science teacher at Barnwell School, Stevenage, and he is interested in developing thinking skills, assessment for learning and trying to make physics cool. References

  • Alexander, R (2006) Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk, Thirsk: Dialogos
  • Westgate, D, and Hughes, M (1997) ‘Identifying “Quality” in Classroom Talk: An Enduring Research Task’, Language and Education (Vol 11, No 2)