No Worries: Another Look at “Cold-Calling” in the Classroom

In a new article in Parade, “How to Build a Better Teacher,” education journalist Elizabeth Green describes the five teaching strategies that may have the greatest impact on student learning. One of these strategies touches on an old debate that deserves to be revisited: “cold-calling,” or calling on students whether or not they have their hands raised: “The goal is to ­extract the maximum possible mileage from each question. By ­introducing the possibility that anyone can be asked to speak at any time, teachers ­decrease the chances their students will tune out.”

The benefits of cold-calling are well-supported by research, and it’s hard to argue with its many benefits. But who doesn’t dread being called on out of the blue? I have lots of memories of feeling nervous in school about being called on, especially when the subject matter was difficult or when I felt confused. And anxiety like that is a distraction that can undermine classroom community and subvert learning.

So, how do we get all of the benefits of cold-calling, without causing students stress or anxiety? Here are some ideas (and I’d love to hear yours!):

  • It takes trust. With the age of kids I teach, I would wait until the second or third week of school to begin using this practice.
  • It takes preparation. Like every classroom routine, this one should be taught explicitly at the start of the year. We should explain to our students why we are going to call on them, even if they don’t have their hands raised. And we should teach all the related skills they will need to be successful. For instance, students need to know what to do if they’re called on, but don’t know the answer. Or, what if someone else is called on and gives the wrong answer? Cold-calling shouldn’t come as a surprise. Instead, it should be part of the foundation we build with our students in the first six weeks of school.
  • It takes time to think. I am a big fan of wait time: 3-5 long seconds for kids to think before calling on anyone to answer a question. A good project is to practice counting out your wait time by tapping the side of your leg (1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi…) for every question that you ask during a lesson. Or have an observer (a student or a student teacher) keep track of your wait time and tell you later how you did.
  • Sometimes it takes two. Sometimes I tell kids I’m going to call on them at random, but I give them time to talk to each other first. This brings an extra burst of energy and engagement to the typical “turn and talk” time.
  • It should be fair. Of course, this is why we use “Random Sticks,” a class set of popsicle sticks with students’ names on them. From the set, you can randomly choose a stick to call on someone. If students feel like all girls or all boys are being picked, I color-code the ends of the Random Sticks so I can alternate between them.
  • Drama doesn’t hurt, especially 10 minutes before lunch. If the usual “turn and talk” time has become more “turn and chat about where you’re going to sit during lunch” time, I add a bit of drama and tension by pulling a Random Stick — and not revealing the student’s name — before asking a question. Or even by sealing the stick in an envelope. I find this works best as a summarizing activity at the end of a lesson. You can even do a drum roll. And the winner is…!
  • You have to know your students. One of the themes of this blog is how important it is to meet the needs of individual learners. There have been times when I’ve had students with significant emotional needs that trump any of the benefits of cold-calling. In these cases, I’ve removed the student’s random stick from the jar and reassured them that I won’t call on them unless they have their hand raised. No one strategy fits every student!

And it should go without saying that cold-calling should never ever be used vindictively, to catch the kid who’s not prepared or not paying attention. Our goal should always be to catch students doing the right thing. But that doesn’t mean that we should avoid challenging questions — or a challenging questioning strategy — because we’re afraid of putting kids on the spot.

By the way, it occurred to me that writing a blog post about “cold-calling” a year and a half after my last blog post was actually kind of appropriate. As my friends know, I moved to Switzerland last summer, and starting in January 2013 (when my husband and I had to sell our house and start planning for a new life overseas), there was no space left for the blog. The past year in our new home has been wonderful. I’ve traveled a lot and discovered that even as an adult, I can learn a new language (I never imagined I’d speak German!). I feel ready now to turn my mind and attention back to teaching (not that it ever really left), and I hope to write in the coming weeks about the usual topics, as well as about being a learner again in someone else’s classroom. So, my best wishes to everyone, and I’d love to hear from you!

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