Popsicle Sticks and Accountability

When I started teaching, I was told that cold calling was important because taking hands selects only confident students, and I might think a class understands a concept when the silent majority are all confused.

I think there are lots of other ways to avoid selection bias. I can give exit tickets or mid-class hinge questions, circulate to look at student work or listen in on student conversations, use whiteboards to quickly see answers to a particular question, and more broadly cultivate an environment where students check their own understanding and feel empowered to speak up and ask questions. Cold calling is a bit of a blunt instrument; it samples randomly, but only one student at a time, and can still misrepresent where the class is.

But my core issue with cold calling was the shame certain students — and it was always the same students — felt when they were called on and didn’t know what to say. Some students bring negative experiences to math class, and putting them on the spot is likely to entrench negative feelings toward math and threaten the social safety of mathematical risk-taking and idea-sharing.

At the same time, I want to create a sense of accountability in my class. I don’t mean accountability in the sense of punishing students when they don’t participate. For me, accountability is creating an environment where students know I care about their learning, I will make sure that every student is set up to succeed, and I follow through to see if they’ve learned and do something about it if they haven’t.

In Ilana Horn’s book Motivated, she describes three norms of participation that can help to create a sense of accountability:

  • Everyone participates
  • Listening matters
  • The focus is on mathematical ideas

I’ve started to use popsicle sticks to cold call students again, but rather than trying to see which students know or don’t know a certain answer, my focus is on creating a sense of accountability and reinforcing these norms. I like popsicle sticks because they are visibly random — students don’t feel like I’m picking on them or trying to catch them not paying attention. And I use them only in a few specific places where there is no right or wrong answer, but instead ask students to share a mathematical idea with the class:

  • After students attempt a problem in groups, or reflect on an idea and share with partners, I call on students asking, “How did your group approach the problem?” or “What is something useful that you or your partner shared?”
  • After looking at a mathematical prompt, for instance a Connecting Representations routine, but with pencils down and before solving, I ask students, “What did you notice that might be mathematically important?”
  • After reflecting on a situation and making estimates of answers to a problem, I ask students for their estimates.

In each of these cases, I’m not looking for a right or wrong answer, but for students to share ideas and approaches. Every student is expected to participate. And in particular when I ask students what they talked about with their partner or group, the message is that they are expected to listen to each other’s ideas.

More broadly, while popsicle sticks are something my students groan about at times, I’ve found that using them in a few specific places helps to create an environment where students know they are expected to participate and that I care what every student thinks, without shaming students for not knowing answers.

2 thoughts on “Popsicle Sticks and Accountability

  1. Dan Anderson (@dandersod)

    Good stuff. One tweak that can take away the pressure but keep the randomness is to ask a question, have everyone share their thoughts with their partner, and then call at random. If you stress when asking your question, “What did your group come up with” can help too, because credit (hopefully not blame) can be spread between the members of the group. It can encourage students to listen to other’s ideas, and explain their own ideas in detail. Certainly not a silver bullet, but a nice change to straight up cold call.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I like that, and I like the sense of collective responsibility that comes with it — students are in it together, not on islands.


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