Cold Call Variations

In a previous post, Cold Calling: The #1 strategy for inclusive classrooms, I’ve outlined the essence of the Cold Calling technique and why it is so powerful. It’s one of the main techniques I include in this post: Great Teaching: The Power of Questioning and we’ve captured it in our Walkthrus Volume 1 in the five steps show here:

In my opinion, where teachers adopt Cold Calling, selecting students to respond to questions instead of letting the default student responses come via hands up and calling out, classrooms are more inclusive; more students are engaged in the learning process and it’s more likely that everyone is thinking about the questions in hand.

However, it’s still the case that plenty of teachers find it a challenge. The habit of starting questions with ‘does anyone know….?‘ or ‘can anyone tell me….?‘, followed by volunteered responses, can be very strong. It requires a deliberate effort to switch this to the cold call routine where everyone is asked and then an individual is chosen to answer. On top of this, very commonly, teachers report a mixture of concern and awkwardness when asking students who lack confidence or appear to be uncomfortable answering questions publicly – so they avoid it, defaulting to engaging with the students more likely to give answers freely. Of course this only compounds the issue; it’s not creating the inclusive confidence-building culture we need.

The solution to this might be to adopt some Cold Call variations that support students to develop their answers and build their confidence as stepping-stones towards full cold calling – which remains the ideal scenario, but might take a while to establish. Some of these ideas are explored in Doug Lemov’s work – and formed part of the UnCommon Schools training on remote learning. Teaching via zoom helped teachers to extend their cold calling repertoire. Here are some things to try as you work on your questioning techniques:

Advance warning:

Pre-callIn this variation, you select a student in advance of some instructional input, letting them know they’ll be the first to respond.

e.g. I’m going to go through this example and then, Sylvie, I’d like you to explain what happens at each step.
This gives Sylvie a heads-up so that, during the example, she is getting ready to explain her thinking. She’s given time to get ready. Then, as she is talking, other students have more time to get ready in case they are cold called after Sylvie.

Another example might be ‘I’m going to read this page of the story and then, Abdi, I’d like you to summarise it for us’. Abdi has notice and, during the reading is able to focus that bit harder, avoiding the more sudden selection from cold calling. The softening of any ‘spotlight moment’ can work incredibly well.
Batched callIn this variation, the teacher highlights 2-3 students to answer in a batch so that they all know their question is coming, buying them some extra time to prepare and to help the teacher coordinate the questioning in a calm deliberate manner:

eg. ‘OK, let’s look at the graph and try to explain the trend. (Pause). Let’s start with Michael, then Jenny, then Daisy. (Pause). So, Michael, how would you explain the trend on the graph?
The teacher engages with Michael’s response, then asks Jenny for her explanation and then goes to Daisy to do the same. The other students know they could also be asked to follow-up from any of the answers.. so everyone is still required to think and engage – but Michael, Jenny and Daisy get that extra bit of time to think, to focus and to prepare. The teacher has a nice calm structure as they’ve already identified the question sequence.

This echoes the way a chairperson might chair a meeting, coordinating the responses from around the table. Let’s hear from Joan, then Abdul then Andrew. It creates a reassuring sense of order to proceedings.

Advance Preparation

Written preparation:
In this variation, students are asked to write answers or ideas down on their books or on a mini whiteboard, before they share their answers verbally. This can benefit all students if the answers are complex, where it helps to jot ideas down. However, for the students who are less confident to volunteer answers verbally, it gives the teacher an opportunity to scan students’ responses, working around the room, before deciding who to call on to share their answers.

eg. Teacher notices that James -normally shy – has correctly written that 11 x 17 is 187. “James, well done you’ve got that right; tell us what you’ve put and how you worked it out”. James is now much more confident in sharing his answer because he knows it’s correct. There’s no risk of feeling awkward for being wrong.

eg. Chanelle has written a short sentence to describe the witch in the story. “That’s a lovely, interesting way to describe her Chanelle, do you want to share what you’ve written?” Again, she’s more likely to do this with some confidence because the teacher has already given her some affirmation.
Pair-share preparationVery often, a round of pair-share is highly productive before cold calling. This gives students time to talk through their ideas, rehearsing explanations and the use of key terminology, airing any doubts or uncertainties. When cold called afterwards, they can simply repeat something they’ve just been saying in the safety of their pair. The period of talking also allows the teacher to circulate to listen in, picking up on the ideas the less confident students are sharing with their partner.

e.g. “James and Safia, I heard you having a great discussion. Safia – I liked your answer – could you share it with the class?” Safia, already having her ideas rehearsed and affirmed, is happier to share them than if she’d been cold called directly without the pair-share rehearsal.

It also works the other way around – knowing they could be cold called, makes students focus more intently on the question in hand during their pair share. These strategies are mutually reinforcing.

Connected Question Types

A key source of variation during cold calling is in the nature of the questions that are being asked. It’s worth thinking about this as you develop your use of the technique.

Process Questions:
These questions focus on methods and thought processes, rather than only on answers.
“Safia, that’s correct; what method did you use to work it out?”
“Javid, well done, good answer. How did you decide on that particular sequence?”

Say It Again Better:
This is where the teacher accepts a student’s half-formed answer to begin with but then supports them to develop it into something more accurate or sophisticated.
“Yes, Chanelle, the graph does ‘go up’, but try to use the term ‘gradient’ and ‘increase/decrease’ to describe it more precisely.”
Connect and Build:
Here, the question used for cold calling requires the student selected to build on the previous students’ answers. This ensures that they listen to each other during the questioning exchanges, even if used occasionally.

e.g. “How could we add to Javid’s answer to that question? …. Mara, what do you think?”
e.g. “Chanelle has an interesting perspective. What might someone else think that challenges that?….. Robbie, what would you say to challenge her?

At with all things, cold calling is just one of a whole repertoire of techniques that weave together. Whilst it’s really important to keep the core idea tightly defined – to avoid lethal mutation where it morphs into whatever anyone wants it to define it as – these variations help to adapt the core strategy to work effectively in a particular context.


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