Cold Call

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.

Warm Call
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.

8 thoughts on “Cold Call

  1. julierwright

    One more possible cold call variant if your students are sitting in tables or groups: call on the whole table/group. This has plusses and minuses too, of course.

  2. trigotometry

    When I read your post, I couldn’t help but compare your experience with cold calling to my experience over my two years. I initially started my first year avoiding the cold call, but I ended up experiencing dead air even when I asked questions/solicited answers to questions I knew students could answer based on my observations. You were told to cold call students. I was never told to use this strategy, but it slowly arose out of necessity to maintain momentum in a lesson. Sometimes, I think this element (momentum) is overlooked when I or other teachers consider how and why we use specific questions and questioning techniques. Granted, there’s been plenty of times when I should’ve just used more wait time for a higher-order question; however, there’s also been plenty of times where I’ve let a lower level question hang for a good minute before some students finally raise their hands. While a cold call can just as easily derail a lesson when a student answers with the dreaded, “I don’t know,” the environment we establish early in the school year such as mandatory participation and warm calls help to make cold calls just another part of the everyday conversation between us and students.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      The dead air is so hard — although the flip side is the dragging of getting a bunch of wrong answers cold calling at a moment in the lesson when the environment in the room can’t take it. It takes reading a room and doing some serious relationship building to get that balance right.

  3. mrdardy

    Part of my goal in cold calling is to make sure that the students recognize that I recognize them. I want them to know that they are expected to be engaged. With some students this is as simple as ‘Suzi, did your answer look like that?’ or ‘Sam, how was your tennis match yesterday?’ Some questions are intended to pull them into the conversation more fully. Some are meant to give me clearer insights into their understanding. Some are simply there to help maintain human connections with the other people in the room.

  4. Amy Zimmer

    HI Dylan,

    I am always struggling with this strategy. I can’t stand cajoling students to being engaged or into talking. Don’t get me wrong, I want, I crave, I hope, I teach, because I want my students to be engaged. I give students lots of opportunities for talking about math, partners, small groups, whole group, so I don’t think they MUST speak aloud to feel heard. What do you think?

    1. dkane47 Post author

      That’s tough. I think something that has helped me is looking at how students’ perceptions of themselves change over time. Some quiet students are quiet because they are happy that way, and I’m unlikely to cold call them (my bias toward deliberate cold calling means I’m not cold calling any more than a handful of students in a given class period). That said, some students are quiet because they lack confidence. I see them doing great work, warm call them, and they feel accomplished. Later in the course, I do something similar, but cold call them, and they still feel successful and accomplished in their sharing. Their perceptions about themselves begin to change.

      Something similar can happen for students who are overconfident — I might cold call them to offer a strategy that can be improved upon, humbling them a little bit and also offering a contrasting view of what it means to offer a productive contribution to the class, and that contribution doesn’t always come in the form of a “right answer”.

      Does that answer your question?


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