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Dr. Fred Jones's
Tools for Teaching

Weaning the Helpless Handraisers, Part 1:
Reinforcing Helplessness


During the first part of any lesson -- call it input, -- students usually pay attention fairly well. You are engaging them, interacting with them, and "working the crowd."

During Guided Practice, however, when you have the nerve to ask students to do some work, the hard part of the lesson begins. Using the time honored words of teaching, you say, "...and, if you are still having difficulty, you may raise your hand, and I will be around to help you as soon as I can." No sooner have these words left your lips and the hands go up. Are they the same hands every day? Could you give me the students' names before you even enter the building?


We're not talking here about those eager students who occasionally need help; we're talking about the helpless handraisers -- those students whose hands are waving in the air no matter what you do or say.

You go to the first helpless handraiser and say, "What do you need help with?"

The student replies, "I don't understand what to do here."

You say, "What part don't you understand?"

The student says, "All of it."

Sound familiar?

Now you begin to slowly and carefully tutor the needy student through the lesson -- step-by-step. Some students prefer the personal touch.

How long will you be with this student? I've timed it hundreds of times. The average helping interaction lasts about four-and-a-half minutes!

As you tutor your helpless handraiser, the noise level in the room begins to rise. In five seconds, the murmuring has spread. In ten seconds, you can hear individual voices above the others. In 15 seconds, the noise is loud and someone is roaming around the room. You've just been given a quick lesson in, "Either you work the crowd, or the crowd works you."

What do you do now?

You say, "All right class, it's altogether too noisy in here. Robert, would you please take your seat! Now, class, you all have work to do, and I cannot be everywhere at once..."

You know the tune. And when you're finished helping the first student, guess what is waiting for you?


Guided Practice is when the wheels fall off. Under the banner of "working independently," we tutor the same half-dozen students day after day, while the rest of the students get noisy. It is the most predictable pattern of goofing off and time wasting in the classroom -- and the most predictable source of teacher stress and exhaustion.

What does the helpless handraiser receive for the lack of effort? How about you, your caring and loving time and attention -- the most powerful reinforcers in a classroom? We literally pay the student to be helpless, and no student will ever grow up and get on the ball if he or she is reinforced daily for remaining helpless and dependent.

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If you simply explain what the student "doesn't know," you walk right into the trap described above. Instead, you must wean the helpless handraiser from a pattern of passivity and dependency that usually is chronic. If you are to break the cycle, you must know how to turn helpless handraisers into independent learners.

How do you give corrective feedback so you don't reinforce helplessness? The method is far more complex than you might imagine.

In this column, I'll focus on the verbal modality: "What do you say?" In future installments (parts 2 and 3), I'll focus on the visual and physical modalities.

All the modalities must work together or weaning will not take place. After all, the student doesn't want to be weaned. Helpless handraisers want you to do the work for them. They'll resist your efforts at weaning.


First of all, corrective feedback must be brief. The longer you stay with the helpless handraiser, the more you reinforce helplessness and the more rowdy the classroom becomes.

Read More!

Have you seen these Education World articles...

...About Dr. Fred Jones?
* The King of Classroom Management! An Education World e-Interview with Classroom Management Expert Fred Jones
* Preferred Activity Time (PAT) Is Preferred by Kids and Teachers!
* Tips from Fred Jones's Tools for Teaching

...By Dr. Jones? * More Time on Task, Less Goofing Off
* Succeeding with Classroom Structure: Rules, Routines, and Standards

So, most of the talk has to go. Dump the "yakety-yak." Most of the yakety-yak is a waste of time anyway; you know -- in one ear and out the other. That's why all learning takes place one step at a time.

Simply prompt and leave. Keep your words clear and simple as you answer the following question for the student: What do I do next?

Be clear, be brief, and be gone.

Beautiful! You have focused the student's attention and given the student what he or she needs to continue -- and it took only a few sentences. Now you can resume working the crowd, so the disruptions do not build.

It sounds good, but weaning is not that easy. Remember, helpless handraisers want you to do the work for them. They won't give up the game easily.

The most common method of keeping you from leaving is wallowing. Helpless handraisers are experts at wallowing. Call it the "Yeah, buts." "Yeah, but I don't understand what to do here on this part." "Yeah, but you didn't explain this."

So, how do you replace wallowing with work? To get past wallowing, you'll have to exploit the visual modality. Tune in next month to learn how.

This article is condensed from Dr. Jones' award winning book Tools for Teaching. Illustrations by Brian Jones for Tools for Teaching.

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