When I first started teaching, I was told to cold call students. There were usually two reasons to cold call. First, it keeps students’ attention, so that when I ask a question all students do the thinking rather than just students who feel like it. Second, it gives me a more accurate view of what my students know and don’t know than if I only ever call on students with raised hands. Let’s call those two accountability and formative assessment.
Accountability and formative assessment are important goals in questioning, but looking back on my questioning when I first started teaching, I was using a bit of a blunt instrument. I cold called the same way, every day. The accountability piece often felt draconian, like a “gotcha”. The formative assessment piece was humbling for me, but also killed my pacing as I stumbled through the weeds of different student misconceptions, constantly trying to fix their thinking on the fly.
Like most aspects of teaching, I’ve come to discover more and more subtlety than I saw as a novice. When I started cold calling, it pretty much always took the same form: I would break a skill down into little parts, throw up an example problem, and question students through the problem bit by bit, cold calling along the way. Here’s a wider variety of questioning techniques that fall under the broader umbrella of what I initially tried to do with cold call.
Micro Cold Call
Break a problem into pieces, and cold call different students for each piece. Here’s a video of the Teach Like a Champion flavor of cold calling.
Macro Cold Call
Give students a complete problem or task, and cold call a student or students to share their approach or answer. The difference here is wait time — in Micro Cold Call, students need to be on their toes. In Macro Cold Call, students have time to work through some math before they’re called on to share.
Variant – Popsicle Sticks
Do the above, but make the cold call transparent with popsicle sticks or another randomizing tool.
Deliberate Cold Call
I Macro Cold Call a student, but while students are working I’m walking around and looking at their work, and I call on a student deliberately because I want the class to hear their approach or perspective.
Students work through a problem or task, and I let a student know that I’m going to ask them to share before we come back together as a class.
These all have different advantages and disadvantages, and serve different roles. Over time I’ve gravitated more and more to the deliberate cold call. There’s a balance of accountability here — students get the sense that math class is a place to share their ideas, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like a “gotcha”. It takes some relationship building, and also plenty of warm calling to build students up, but I’m particularly partial to the deliberate cold call because it sends the message that I don’t actually need to ask students permission. This might rub some folks the wrong way, but I think it’s essential to building a culture where students are willing to share their ideas, while at the same time setting them up for success.
This also offers a different view of formative assessment. I would question whether a micro cold call is actually a particularly useful tool for figuring out what students, collectively, know — the sample size is too small, and a lack of engagement is easily mistaken for a misconception. Instead, deliberate cold calling pushes me to give students something meaningful to do, and to circulate to see their thinking — and my formative assessment happens during that circulation, rather than through a cold call at the end. It also pushes me to separate formative assessment from instruction. Not that the two should be disjoint, but that certain moments are useful for formative assessment. Several times a class I plan a question that probes student thinking and gives me a picture of where they are and what I might do next. Then there are moments in class when I want to be more deliberate in pushing student thinking– I don’t want a random student answer, I want the right piece of thinking to move the class’s collective understanding forward. Being deliberate about this ebb and flow between probing and pushing student thinking helps class move along, while at the same time focusing my efforts on formative assessment when it is likely to be most effective.
There’s one more piece that comes in. Engaging students in meaningful mathematical discourse is essential to building understanding, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes we’re having a “discussion” that goes on for 10 minutes, and other times we’re not discussing. These deliberate cold calls, chosen to present a certain perspective or strategy, or to juxtapose two approaches, create opportunities for micro-discussions. Students need to articulate their ideas and respond to each other, and sometimes this means just two or three students chiming in, while other times it’s a series of students presenting arguments for or against a certain idea. Putting discussions on this spectrum, and using deliberate cold calling to launch them, has become a huge part of my questioning technique. It raises the level of that discourse because I’m anticipating and sequencing responses, while at the same time putting students in a position to think on their toes and articulate their ideas clearly.
I’ve seen a few arguments for and against cold calling, and I find them interesting — but also too broad. I’m much more interested in breaking down cold calling into its constituent parts, thinking about the purpose of cold calling, and then thinking about the situations where it’s most applicable. This is just a start — my taxonomy is likely incomplete, and I think there’s a lot more room for analysis of where different cold calling techniques are most effective. Those are the conversations that, for me, are worth having.