All teachers strive to empower students and push them to take ownership of their learning experience, but achieving this can be a challenge, especially when it comes to “needier” students. Fred Jones, author of Tools for Teaching, refers to these kinds of students as “helpless handraisers.” I think this is a fairly accurate description, but the question is, how do we wean these students off their neediness? And more specifically, how do we help them quickly and effectively without reinforcing helplessness and losing control of the rest of the class?
Jones’s Praise, Prompt, and Leave strategy is one that is particularly useful in these situations. Here’s how it works:
Let’s say that the class is working independently on a math problem. After only a few seconds, you see a hand go up. It’s Jessie. Again. “How could he possibly need help already?” you think. Rather than ignoring Jessie, or becoming frustrated with him, give Jones’s three-part strategy a shot.
Praise the Student
When you look at Jessie’s math problem, you will see two things: what he did right, and where he went wrong. Whether you want to or not, chances are that you’ll see the part that is wrong first. Rather than beginning with what Jessie didn’t do,
- First, take a breath. Give yourself a second to refocus not on the mistakes, but on what Jessie did right.
- Second, praise what Jessie has done well.
Keep in mind that praise is not necessarily synonymous with “nice.” Just comment on one or two aspects of the student’s performance in simple, declarative sentences.
Prompt the Student
Before prompting the student, think about what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. You want to avoid beginning your prompt with “But,” “However,” or “Instead of.” Language like this actually undermines your praise, turning it into a “back-handed” compliment!
Beginning your prompt with something like, “The next thing you might want to do is…” will work much better.
Leave the Student
After you’ve given a prompt, your instinct may tell you to check for understanding before you leave. Whether or not you do this is up to you, but as Jones suggests, “‘helpless handraisers’ constantly exploit corrective feedback for attention rather than learning.” For these kinds of students, you may do better to leave before you see the student carry out the prompt.
A Note About Corrective Feedback
Beware of beginning corrective feedback with a question. Why?
- They produce verbosity: The best way to guarantee that you talk for three minutes is to talk for one minute! Meanwhile, the rest of your class is going off the rails.
- They enable helpless handraising: While some dialogue with struggling students may produce a rich dialogue, you run the danger of further enabling your needy students.
Rather than begin your prompt with a question, you might do better to initiate a request: “John I’d like to see you do such and such right here.” “Kelly, take a look at step number four.” Why? Requests are “emotionally safe” because they do not imply judgment.