Anyone, anyone?

In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the… Anyone? Anyone?…

The 1980s teen classic movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off includes a scene in which a high school Economics teacher delivers a monotone lecture on the relevance of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.  The teenagers in front of him are slack jawed and glassy eyed, unresponsive to the teacher’s attempts to get ‘anyone, anyone?’ to respond to his questions.  He ploughs on regardless, supplying all the answers himself; the students continue to stare with a mixture of boredom and confusion.  They appear to have stopped blinking.

It’s a hilarious scene, but one which perhaps contains an uncomfortable grain of truth for teachers. Many of us will be familiar with having our questions greeted with an awkward silence, grateful to the handful of students willing to speak up: ‘Thank goodness – someone knows the answer!’

It is here I think about how my own teaching was transformed by Cold Calling.  This is a practice which originated from Teach Like A Champion author and managing director of the US based ‘Uncommon Schools’, Doug Lemov.  With Cold Calling, students are called on to respond to the teacher’s questions, even if they have not raised their hand.  I find Cold Calling a powerful technique, not only for the academic rigour it brings to the classroom, but for the way in which it promotes inclusion.  With Cold Calling, everyone’s contribution is valued; everyone’s voice is heard.

Fundamentally, Cold Calling is a tool for formative assessment.  Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction guide teachers to present information in small chunks and to regularly check for understanding. Asking only those students who have raised their hands produces a very small sample size with which to ‘check’ that the whole class has understood.  Cold Calling means teachers can gauge the level of learning on a much wider scale.  It acts as a hinge point: is the class ready to move on, or do we need to pause, to clarify, to re-teach?  Any misconceptions, likely to derail us later, can be headed off here.

Importantly, Cold Calling is about getting all – not just some – students to think.  To this end, giving ‘wait time’ after a question is crucial.  Lemov asks us to consider what happens when a teacher names a student before they pose a question.  In my classroom that might sound something like this: ‘Charlotte, give me one reason why the Nazis rose to power’. At that point, everyone who isn’t Charlotte has instantly switched off.  Posing the question first makes a difference: ‘I’m looking for one reason why the Nazis rose to power. I’ll give you two minutes to think, and then I’ll call for some answers’. In this second scenario, everyone is required to give the question some thought.  As education consultant and author Tom Sherrington (2021) writes: ‘Unless you are cold calling, lots of children learn not to think very hard’.

Cold Call is about accountability, but it isn’t, as Lemov says a ‘gotcha’, aiming to put people on the spot.  This is an oft-cited concern about Cold Calling.  When a question appears to pounce on a student unawares, this becomes a ‘lethal mutation’ of Lemov’s original idea.  Such concerns however, mean some students never participate in discussion. Teachers worry about appearing to terrify less confident members of the group, lest those students feel themselves ‘picked on’.

This is understandable; asking students to speak in front of their peers means asking them to take a risk.  But without it, students can become passive.  Cold Calling actually creates a more inclusive classroom culture.  Thinking time can be done in pairs, giving an added layer of support. Together, students can check and develop their first thoughts.  This initial discussion is a confidence-building rehearsal for the bigger arena of whole class feedback.  By circulating during thinking time, teachers can prompt those struggling to get off the mark, and build confidence by praising an idea, laying the ground for students to share with the class, knowing their idea is on the right track.

What has really changed my practice has been seeing Cold Calling as less, well, frosty. Tom Sherrington uses the phrase ‘warm, invitational calling’.  Now I invite someone to open the discussion rather than asking them to provide an answer.  By saying ‘Alex and Kirsty, what were your first thoughts?’ or ‘Isabel, can you start us off?’ the onus isn’t on the student to have the definitive answer, but to open a conversation which can then, with other contributions, reach a deeper level of thinking. 

Laying the groundwork like this for a broader conversation also allows slightly ‘off beam’, or even wrong answers to be acknowledged.  Responses can be redirected without students feeling crushed.  When we are not looking for a perfect, fully formed answer, the door is open to approach from many directions.  This doesn’t mean less rigorous discussion; we can still aim for precision but value the process as much as the result.

Cold Call also serves a much wider purpose, one which extends beyond the classroom.  Confidence is not a trait but a set of beliefs we hold about ourselves. As Steve Magness, performance expert and author of ‘Do Hard Things’ puts it: ‘real confidence demands evidence’. Each time we Cold Call a student, we help them to create that evidence: they can speak out in front of others, they can make themselves understood.  Cold Calling proves to students that they are worthy of a seat at the table where people discuss clever, interesting things.   

Cold Calling is more than a way to avoid a sea of blank faces in our classrooms.  It is an inclusive, supportive practice which communicates to students our high expectations.  Every question asked is an opportunity to say: we know you can meet them.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

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One Comment

  1. Helen Zkarolewski

    Enjoying your blogs, Louise!
    I like to keep my hand in as I still do a bit of teaching despite being retired!

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